With breaches caused by payment card thieves and hackers dominating the news, it is easy for mid-sized and small companies to think that data breaches are unfortunate events that affect only large companies. Not only is this sentiment misguided, but in relative terms the information contained in exposed emails can cause far more damage to an organization than the loss of customer payment card data. In this case, as reported by CNET, the inadvertent error was caused by a staff member of Australia’s Department of Immigration whose email blunder disclosed to an unauthorized party the personal passport information (e.g., passport number, date of birth) of all of the G20 leaders, including President Obama.
Embarrassing no doubt, but it looks like potential harm was mitigated as the recipient (someone at the Local Organizing Committee of the Asian Cup international soccer tournament) confirmed the email was immediately deleted and not forwarded or copied to a backup system. For sure, the G20 leaders have teams of people able to track down and secure such a transmission. Most businesses will not have the same good fortune, nor the same resources to track and secure such an errant email.
Company email and other electronic communications systems can tell a very comprehensive story about an organization, the details of which even management may not be fully aware. There will, of course, be emails and attachments that contain sensitive personal information about employees, customers and other individuals. Consider, for example, the employee relations nightmare that could erupt if a spreadsheet containing names, SSNs and salary information of all company employees and executives is inadvertently sent company-wide. The same would be true for email communications containing details of a workplace affair or establishing evidence of systemic workplace discrimination.
However, companies also maintain critically important trade secret information, intellectual property and strategic business planning data that is communicated through email and other systems. Such data, if disclosed to or accessed by the wrong person(s), could severely hamper the company’s business. The same would be true if a similar error, albeit unintentional, resulted in the disclosure of important information belonging to the company’s clients.
It should go without saying that the autofill feature is not the only risk to confidential information in electronic communication systems. These systems could be hacked, synched and unencrypted devices could be lost, and rouge employees could remove vast amounts of files containing a wealth of damaging data. In either case, the potential harm could take many forms beyond the typical payment card breach. Indeed, customer payment card information could be included in email. However, in the case of a professional services firm, for example, sensitive client information included in the breach could result in the loss of key clients, the cost of which could be difficult to overcome, as would be the cost to regain that client’s trust. Emails included in the group could expose a sordid affair involving the company’s chief executive, damaging the company’s position in the community. The same incident also could result in the loss of key intellectual property that undermines the business’ competitive advantage. The list could go on.
No set of safeguards will reduce to zero the risk of these kinds of incidents. That does not mean efforts to reduce the risks should be ignored. Limiting data collected and transmitted in electronic communications systems, a closely followed record retention and destruction policy, reasonable monitoring of systems, and creating a culture of privacy and security are all steps a company can take to reduce this exposure. But, that is not all. Businesses also must plan for the inevitability that breaches involving the loss of confidential information of many different varieties can and will occur. Key members of management should be thinking through different scenarios, developing appropriate plans to respond, and practicing those plans.