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“These are not the droids you are looking for” – Using “geek speak” to confuse and confound January 31, 2012

Posted by Chris Mark in InfoSec & Privacy, Risk & Risk Management.
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In reading through various companies’ websites, I often take a look at their security statements to see what, if anything, is being said about security.  More often than not these statements are little more than “geek speak” written to give consumers and others a peace of mind yet don’t really provide any information on the security posture of the company.  In the vast majority of cases the statements are ‘marketing fluff’ and provide little value.  Here are some of the more common and interesting statements I have come across:

-”We use industry leading encryption, including SSL, to protect your data as it is transmitted to us.”  Encrypting transmission of credit card data is not only required by the card brands and the PCI DSS, it is also required by a number of laws and is simply good practice!  The fact that a company feels compelled to state that they are using SSL to protect transmitted data leads to more questions.  It doesn’t say anything about how your data is used (privacy discussion) or whether the stored data is adequately protected by encryption or other technologies.  SSL is a very small piece of the puzzle.

-”We use multi-tiered firewall controls to protect sensitive data.” Again, multi-tiered network architectures are required by the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS)  and being that we are now in the year 2012, operating without a multi-tiered network would be irresponsible at best.  This statement only states that the company has implemented firewalls between various segments of their network and suggests that they are not operating a ‘flat’ network in which every system can touch every other system (very 2003).  It does not state anything about whether the devices are configured correctly nor does it differentiate between application layer and network layer firewalls. (more geek speak to confuse and confound)

-”All customer data is housed in our secure data centers.” For those unfamiliar with the term, a “data center” is nothing more than a building that is used to house computer servers typically for a number of different clients.  Data centers are designed with safety, physical security, and redundancy in mind.  The fact that data is housed in a 4th generation data ceneter does not provide any information on the technical security controls implemented to protect customer data.  It simply means that if someone wanted to physically steal the computer they would be challenged.

-”we use robust encryption and change the encryption key at least annually.”  The use of ecryption technology is a good step but encryption is only as good as the algorythms used and the key management employed.  This statement simply says that once again, the company is following industry accepted controls.  While changing encryption keys periodically is good practice, it doesn’t say anything about how the keys are managed in the intervening periods nor does it say anything about what data is encrypted or what access controls are in place.

When evaluating a company with which to do business, it is suggested that you take the time to really ask the difficult questions about security.  Simply reading website information will not provide you with the assurance that the company is protecting your data.  In some cases the information provided is not simply irrelevant but may provide a false sense of security the the buyer.  By using ‘geek speak’ it is easy to convince a non-techie that they are doing the right things.  If you are not confident in your own technical skills to evaluate a vendor, it is worth taking the time to find a consultant or some other trusted party to support you in your evaluation.

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