Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Oops There Goes Our Reputation

I'm guessing that up to two weeks ago most people, like me, had never heard of a company called Epsilon. Now, unfortunately for them, too many people know of them for all the wrong reasons. If you sign up to any services from household names such as Marks and Spencer, Hilton, Marriott or McKinsey you will have probably had several emails in the last two weeks advising you of a security breach which led to "unauthorized entry into Epsilon's email system". Unfortunately because Epsilon is a marketing vendor that manages customer email lists for these and other well known household brands chances are your email has been obtained by this unauthorised entry as well. Now, it just might be a pure coincidence, but in the last two weeks I have also received emails from the Chinese government inviting me to a conference on some topic I've never heard of, from Kofi Annan, ex-Secretary General of the United Nations and from a lady in Nigeria asking for my bank account details so she can deposit $18.4M into the account so she can leave the country!

According to the information on Epsilon's web site the information that was obtained was limited to email addresses and/or customer names only. So, should we be worried by this and what are the implications on architecture of such systems?

I think we should be worried for at least three reasons:
  1. Whilst the increased spam that is seemingly inevitable following an incident such as this is mildly annoying a deeper concern is how could the criminal elements who now have information on the places I do business on the web put this information together to learn more about me and possibly construct a more sophisticated phishing attack? Unfortunately it's not only the good guys that have access to data analytics tools.
  2. Many people probably have a single password to access multiple web sites. The criminals who now have your email as well as knowledge of which sites you do business at only have to crack one of these and potentially have access to multiple sites, some of which may have more sensitive information.
  3. Finally how come information I trusted to well known (and by implication 'secure') brands and their web sites has been handed over to a third party without me even knowing about it? Can I trust those companies not to be doing this with more sensitive information and should I be withdrawing my business from them?. This is a serious breach of trust and I suspect that many of these brands own reputations will have been damaged.
So what are the impacts to us as IT architects in a case like this? Here are a few:
  1. As IT architects we make architectural decisions all the time. Some of these are relatively trivial (I'll assign that function to that component etc) whereas others are not. Clearly decisions about which part of the system to entrust personal information to is not trivial. I always advocate documenting significant architectural decisions in a formal way where all the options you considered are captured as well as the rationale and implications behind the decision you made. As our systems get ever more complex and distributed the implications of particular decisions become harder to quantify. I wonder how many architects consider the implications to a companies reputation of entrusting even seemingly low grade personal information to third parties?
  2. It is very likely that incidents such as this are going to result in increased legislation that covers personal information just like there is legislation on Payment Card Industry (PCI) standards. This will demand more architectural rigour as new standards essentially impose new constraints on how we design our systems.
  3. As we trundle slowly to a world where more and more of our data is to be held in the cloud using a so called multi-tenant deployment model it's surely only a matter of time before unauthorised access to one of our cloud data stores will result in access to many other data sources and a wealth of our personal information. What is needed here is new thinking around patterns of layered security that are tried and tested and, crucially, which can be 'sold' to consumers of these new services so they can be reassured that their data is secure. As Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) takes off and new providers join the market we will increasingly need to be reassured they are to be trusted with our personal data. After all if we cannot trust existing, large corporations how can we be expected to trust new, small startups?
  4. Finally I suspect that it is only a matter of time before legislation aimed at systems designers themselves is enforced that make us as IT architects liable for some of those architectural decisions I mentioned earlier. I imagine there are several lawyers engaged by the parties whose customers email addresses were obtained and whose trust and reputation with those customers may now be compromised. I wonder if some of those lawyers will be thinking about the design of such systems in the first place and, by implication, the people who designed those systems?

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