CPO: US Federal Websites in Urgent Need of Web Security Upgrade

Article originally published in CPO Magazine on December 8, 2017

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The U.S. Federal Government is a behemoth that touches every aspect of American life – and today the touchpoints for services and information that each U.S. citizen requires to comply with federal rules and regulations are increasingly found on the Internet. However, the latest report on the state of federal websites indicates that they fail on some key indicators regarding web security.

The problem with federal – and many enterprise – websites is that no one individual is in charge of the entire website operation.

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INFOGRAPHIC: Data Protection and Privacy Regulations

Your customer’s digital experience is powered by a range of third-party services not controlled by enterprise IT–ad blocker, advertising, analytics, content recommendation, data management, payments, social widgets, video players, and so much more. Increasingly, these services are proving to be a source of regulatory violations.

Download: Data Protection Infographic

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Ransomware and the small/medium-sized enterprise

When the “cost of doing business” is no longer an option.

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“It’s the cost of doing business.” Over the long holiday season, I heard this phrase several times while socializing with family, friends and business acquaintances. My usually optimistic social group bemoaned the annoying effect ransomware has had (and continues to have) on their day-to-day business.

The topic isn’t a surprise. Around the country, similar professionals at small/medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) echo their sentiments. What surprised me was their passive reaction to the problem. Even the current President Barack Obama and the President-elect Donald Trump recognize the threat of cybercrime to businesses and the public.

It’s not just you, Mr. SME

Ransomware has undoubtedly been on the rise, with some groups such as the FBI claiming 4,000 attacks a day. These high numbers affirm the fact that ransomware is a financially motivated, equal opportunity malware; it wants to lock down any device that has an owner, whether the owner is a teenager, a global business tycoon or a small business owner.

Unfortunately, ransomware can be debilitating for small/medium-sized businesses (SMEs) whose viability hinges on access to customer lists, financial records, product/service details, legal contracts and much more. Most SMEs don’t have the resources or a sophisticated technology infrastructure to adequately secure their business. In fact, almost a third of SME don’t employ an information security professional. And, considering more than 70% of businesses actually pay up, ransomware is the perfect exploit for SMEs.

Clearly, it’s a big problem that needs a big solution, right?

Backups, backups, backups

From hospitals and medical offices to accounting firms and ecommerce shops, ransomware has proven to be a successful criminal endeavor, with many paying more than $10,000 for each incident to regain access to their business data. And, SMEs seem to have learned to accept it as a cost of doing business.

“It’s not a big deal, Mark. We just do more frequent backups.” Yes, this was an overwhelmingly common approach to the problem. It seems my discussion partners spend several hours a week making backup copies of files. When asked about the costs (storage, time resources, duplicate systems, access to backups, energy usage, etc.) the response was a casual shoulder shrug. Really? Frequent backups is your security strategy? At a time when businesses are getting leaner in every way, spending time and resources on backups isn’t a good use of ever-thinning IT budgets or the scarce security talent.

Beyond backups – seal the entryway

Backups are good, but they are just one piece of a more holistic security strategy against ransomware. The biggest challenge is helping my fellow IT professionals understand that ransomware—and any malware for that matter—can penetrate the best of defenses. The key is knowing how it enters: basic everyday Internet usage at work (think about email, websites, apps, out-of-date software/patches, etc.

“We use anti-virus software, blacklist the typical non-business sites, installed ad blockers, and repeatedly train staff about the perils of email links and attachments. What else is there?”

First, anti-virus (AV) and blacklisting isn’t enough as these defenses assume the bad guy is known; his signature is captured and stopped from executing. With thousands of new malware variants entering the digital ecosystem each day it’s nearly impossible for AVs to keep their protection levels up. Blacklisting is good for general business purposes. (I mean, if coworkers need to access porn, gambling or gaming during the work day you’ve got bigger problems!) But this doesn’t mean that all other websites are good, even the Alexa 1,000. Some of the largest web-based attacks occur on legitimate, premium websites.

Second, enterprise ad blocking isn’t all it seems. You may think that all ads are blocked, but this isn’t true. Large advertising networks pay a fee to whitelist their ads in exchange for agreeing to fit a stilted format. Media website owners (Facebook anyone?) are adopting technology to detect ad blockers and then re-insert their ads or content.

“Well, dammit, what should we do?”, you ask.

All is not lost – A new year has dawned

Now’s the time to take stock of your business’s information security plan. Conducting a full-scale audit can be daunting. To kick-off the process, I recommend the following initial steps:

  1. Identify all data sources (employee, vendors, customer). Increasingly, enterprises are asking their partners about security processes as part of their own security governance.
  2. Document how data is collected, used and stored. This includes mapping data input sources, e.g. website forms, emailed contracts, customer portals, payroll, etc.
  3. Estimate costs to collect and store data.
  4. Assign an owner to each data element, e.g., financial information to Finance, marketing data to Sales/Marketing, legal information to Contracts/Finance, etc.
  5. Score data value. On a scale of 1-100 assess the data’s criticality to business, e.g. if it’s lost what is the impact from financial, brand, relationship perspectives.
  6. Consider a Threat Intelligence Platform (TIP) to streamline data management and terminate threats before they penetrate the business.

Once you have this information you can then start to evaluate weaknesses, reinforce existing security processes and align IT budgets accordingly.

Ransomware isn’t as hard to tackle as many SME information security teams think.


 

Chasing the Revenue Dragon

While chasing the smoky revenue dragon, publishers miss a different monster: Data Leakage.dragon-fotolia_34730412_s

In October The Guardian’s Chief Revenue Officer revealed[1] that numerous ad tech providers in the ad supply chain were extracting up to 70% of advertisers’ money without quantifying the value to the brand. Yes, this revenue loss situation is eye opening, but it’s not the only activity affecting your bottom line. Protecting your data assets is critical for maintaining and maximizing revenue. Inability to control digital audience data within the supply chain is a catalyst for revenue loss. The looming General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) regulations, that take effect in May 2018, makes the case for data protection that much stronger.

Data: a Publisher’s lifeblood

Every digital publisher intrinsically knows that one of their most valuable assets is their audience data – it drives a publisher’s stickiness with lucrative advertisers, their inventory value, and ultimately their brand image.

Data leakage is the unauthorised transfer of information from one entity to another. In the digital ad ecosystem, data loss traditionally occurred when a brand or marketing agency collected publishers’ audience data and reused it without authorisation. Today, this scenario is much more convoluted due to the volume of players in the digital advertising landscape, causing data loss to steadily permeate the entire digital ad industry.

Publishers lose when they can’t control their valuable consumer data:

1. Depleted market share: With your audience data in their hands, advertisers and ad tech providers can always go to other publications and target the exact audiences, thereby devaluing your brand.

2. Reduced ad pricing:  When advertisers or ad tech providers can purchase your audience at a fraction of the cost it decreases the demand for your ads, thus devaluing your ad prices.

3. Exposure to regulatory penalties & risk mitigation: Collection and use of consumer data is a publisher’s prerogative, but protection of this data is a weighty responsibility. Inability to safeguard data gathered from your website leaves a publisher vulnerable to running afoul of government regulations. Saying the penalties under GDPR are severe is an understatement. The repercussion of noncompliance is losing up to 4% of your total global turnover or €20 million, whichever is greater.

4. Reputation loss: Ultimately, data loss and any news of noncompliance could negatively affect consumer trust and brand reputation.

The hands behind data loss

On average, The Media Trust detects at least 10 parties contributing to the execution or delivery of a single digital ad, and this is a conservative figure considering that frequently this number is as high as 30, and at times more than 100, depending on the size of the campaign, type of ad, and so forth. The contributing parties are typically DSPs, SSPs, Ad Exchanges, Trading Desks, DMPs, CDNs and other middlemen who actively participate in the delivery of the ad as it traverses from advertiser to publisher. Any upstream player, including the advertiser or original buyer, has access to a publisher’s proprietary audience data if not monitored for compliance.

The advertising ecosystem isn’t the only offender. The bulk of third-party vendor code that executes on the publisher’s website goes unmonitored, exposing the publisher to excessive and unauthorised data collection. In these cases, a publisher’s own website acts as a sieve leaking audience data into the digital ecosystem.

Ending the chase

Resolving revenue lost from data leakage isn’t an unsolvable conundrum, but one that can be addressed by applying the following:

  1. Data Collection: Get smart about the tools used for assuring clean ads and content. Your solution provider for ad quality should check for ad security, quality, performance and help with data protection. Reducing excessive data collection is the first step in addressing data leakage.
  1. Data Access: With GDPR, EU-US Privacy Shield, and many more such timely regulations and programs, the onus is on the publisher to understand what data activity their upstream partners engage in via advertising. Instead of today’s rampant mistrust, the supply chain must move to accountability for non-compliant behavior.
  1. Governance: Publishers absolutely need to start adopting and enforcing stricter terms and conditions around data collection and data use.

Ultimately, every publisher needs to monitor and govern third-party partners on their website to close loopholes that facilitate data leakage before pointing fingers at others.

The Great Data Leakage Whodunit

Safeguarding valuable, first-party data isn’t as easy as you think

If your job is even remotely connected to the digital advertising ecosystem, you are probably aware that data leakage has plagued publishers for many years. But you are most likely still in the dark about the scope and gravity of this issue. Simply put, data leakage is the unauthorized transfer of information from one entity to another. In the digital ad ecosystem, this data loss traditionally occurred when a brand or marketing agency collected publishers’ audience data and reused it without authorization. Today, this scenario is much more complicated due to the sheer number of players across the digital advertising landscape, which causes data loss to steadily permeate the entire digital ad industry, and leading to a “whodunit” pandemonium.

Surveying the Scene

On average, at The Media Trust we detect at least 10 parties contributing to the execution or delivery of a single digital ad, and this is a conservative figure considering that frequently this number is as high as 30, and in some cases more than 100, depending on the size of the campaign, type of ad, and so forth. The other contributing parties are typically DSPs, SSPs, Ad Exchanges, Trading Desks, CDNs and other middlemen that actively participate in the delivery of the ad as it moves from advertiser to publisher. Just imagine the cacophony of “not me!” that breaks out when unauthorized data collection is detected. To make matters worse: few understand how data leakage impacts their business and ultimately, the consumer. As a result, an unwieldy game of whodunit is afoot.

Sniffing out the culprit(s)

To unravel this data leakage mystery, let’s get down to brass tacks and build a basic story around just four actors: Bill the Luxury Traveler (Consumer), Brooke the Brand Marketer (Brand), Blair the Audience Researcher (Agency), and Ben the Ad Operations Director (Publisher).

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Bill the Luxury Traveler

Case File: As a typical consumer, Bill researched vacation package for his favorite Aspen resort on a popular travel website. He found a great bargain but wasn’t ready to make the final booking. As he spent the next few days thinking about his decision, he noticed ads for completely different resorts on almost every website he visited. How did “they” know he wants to travel?

Prime Suspects: Bill blames his favorite resort and the leading travel website for not protecting or, even worse, selling his personal data.

Brooke the Brand Marketer

Case File: Brooke is the marketer for a popular Aspen luxury resort. She invested a sizeable percentage of her marketing budget on an agency that specialized in audience research and paid a premium to advertise on a website frequented by consumers like Bill. To her dismay, she realized that this exact target audience is being served ads for competitive resorts on several other websites. How did her competitors know to target the same audience?

Prime Suspects: Brooke questions her ad agency leaking her valuable audience information to the ad ecosystem and also fears the leading travel website does not adequately safeguard audience data. What Brooke does not suspect is her own brand website, which could by itself be a sieve that filters audience data into the hands of competitors and bad actors alike.

Blair the Audience Researcher

Case File: With a decade of experience serving hospitality clients, Blair’s agency specializes in market research to understand the target audience and recommend digital placements for advertising campaigns. However, one of Blair’s prestigious clients questioned her about the potential use of the brand’s proprietary audience data by competitors. How does she prove the client-specific value of her research and justify the premium spend?

Prime Suspects: Blair is concerned about the backlash from her clients and the impact on the agency’s reputation. She now has to discuss the issue with her trading desk partner to understand what happened, but she is unaware that she is about to go down a rabbit hole that could lead right back to her client or the client’s brand website as the main culprit.

Ben the Director of Ad Operations:

Case File: Ben is the Director of Ad Operations for a premium travel website. As a digital publisher, the sanctity of his visitor/audience data directly translates to revenue. In this scenario, he suffered when his valuable audience data floated around the digital ecosystem without proper compensation Almost every upstream partner had access to his audience data and could collect it without permission. When his data leaked it devalued ad pricing, reduced market share and customer trust, and also raised data privacy concerns. How does he detect data leakage and catch the offending party?

Prime Suspects: Everyone. Publishers like Ben are tired of this whodunit scenario and the resulting finger-pointing. While ad exchanges and networks receive a bulk of the blame for data collection, he is aware that many agencies, brand marketers and their brand websites play a role in this caper, too.

And at the end of the day, consumers, people like Bill whose personal data is stolen, are ultimate the victims of this mysterious game.

Guilty until proven innocent

While the whole data leakage mystery is complex, it can be cracked. The first step is accepting that the entire display industry is riddled with mistrust and every participant is guilty until proven innocent. Several publishers, responsible DSPs, trading desks, exchanges, marketing agencies and brands have already taken it upon themselves to solve this endless whodunit. To bolster their innocence, these participants need to carefully review:

  1. Data Collection: Get smart about the tools used for assuring clean ads and content. Your solution provider should check for ad security, quality, performance and help with data protection. Reducing excessive data collection is the first step in addressing data leakage.
  1. Data Access: With the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), EU-US Privacy Shield, and many more such timely regulations, the onus is on every player in the digital ad ecosystem to understand what data their upstream and downstream partners can access and collect via ads. Instead of today’s blame game, the industry should slowly see accountability for non-compliant behavior.
  1. Governance: Every entity across the ad ecosystem should adopt and enforce stricter terms and conditions around data collection and data use. This is especially crucial for publishers and brands – the two endpoints of the digital ad landscape.

Ultimately, every participant in the digital advertising ecosystem first needs to monitor and govern their own website in an attempt to close loopholes that facilitate data leakage before pointing fingers at others.

The Blind Spot in Enterprise Security

Website security is overlooked in most IT governance frameworks. 

website security blindspot

Managing a website isn’t as easy as you think. Sure, you test your code and periodically scan web applications but this only addresses your first-party owned code. What about third-party code?

Considering more than 78% of the code executing on enterprise websites is from third-parties, IT/ website operations departments cannot truly control what renders on a visitor’s browser. This inability to identify and authorize vendor activity exposes the enterprise to a host of issues affecting security, data privacy and overall website performance. And, your website isn’t immune.

Masked vulnerability: What you don’t know can hurt you

The fact that the majority of the code executing on an enterprise website is not seen, let alone managed, does not absolve the enterprise from blame should something go wrong—and it does.

Much publicized stories about website compromises and digital defacement point to the embarrassing reality that websites are not easy to secure. But that’s not all.

Digital property owners—websites and mobile apps—are beholden to a series of regulations covering consumer privacy, deceptive advertising, and data protection. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission U.S. has dramatically stepped up enforcement of deceptive advertising and promotional practices in the digital environment over the past few years and recently signaled interest in litigating enterprises found to be violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).

Data privacy regulations don’t only apply to minors accessing the website. The recent overturning of EU-US Safe Harbor and resulting EU-US Privacy Shield framework calls attention to the need to understand what data is collected, shared and stored via enterprise digital operations.

Don’t forget that these third parties directly affect website performance. Problematic code or behavior—too many page requests, large page download size, general latency, etc.—render a poor experience for the visitor. Potential customers will walk if your website pages take more than two seconds to load, and third parties are usually the culprits.

The problem is that the prevalence of third-party code masks what’s really happening on a public-facing website. This blindness exposes the enterprise to unnecessary risk of regulatory violations, brand damage and loss of revenue.

Seeing through the camouflage

This is a serious issue that many enterprises come to realize a little too late. Third-party vendors provide the interactive and engaging functionality people expect when they visit a website—content recommendation engines, customer identification platforms, social media widgets and video platforms, to name a few. In addition, they are also the source of numerous back-end services used to optimize the viewing experience—content delivery network, marketing management platforms, and data analytics.

Clearly, third parties are critical to the digital experience. However, no single individual or department in an organization is responsible for everything that occurs on the site—marketing provides the content and design, IT/web operations makes sure it works, sales/ecommerce drives the traffic, etc. This lack of holistic oversight makes it impossible to hold anyone or any group accountable for when things go wrong that can jeopardize the enterprise.

Case in point: can you clearly answer the following:

  • How many third-party vendors executing on your website?
  • How did they get on the site, i.e., were they called by another vendor?
  • Can you identify all activity performed by each vendor?
  • What department authorized and takes ownership of these vendors and their activity?
  • How do you ensure vendor activity complies with your organization’s policies as well as the growing body of government regulations?
  • What is the impact of individual vendor activity on website performance?
  • What recourse do you have for vendors that fail to meet contractually-agreed service level agreements (SLA)?

Questions like these highlight the fact that successfully managing an enterprise website requires a strong command of the collective and individual technologies, processes and vendors used to render the online presence, while simultaneously keeping the IT infrastructure secure and in compliance with company-generated and government-mandated policies regarding data privacy.

Adopting a Website Governance strategy will help you satisfy these requirements.

Take back control

What happens on your website is your responsibility. Don’t you think you should take control and know what’s going on? It’s time you took a proactive approach to security. The Media Trust can shine a light on your entire website operation and alert you to security incidents, privacy violations and performance issues.