Stopping WikiLeaks-Style Data Thefts Is Easy

Tools to lock PCs have been available for years, and could have prevented the WikiLeaks breach, says Wayne Rash – if we used them

It was during the course of reviewing an Acer Veriton N282G that I realized that the company had included all of the security tools necessary to prevent exactly the kind of data theft that eventually led to the WikiLeaks scandal.

If the base in Iraq where PFC Bradley Manning worked had been using these computers (or computers with similar capabilities) and had they been managed properly, the vast dump of State Department messages would never have happened. With a device like this Manning couldn’t have copied anything to a CD or to a USB memory stick and all those sensitive diplomatic messages wouldn’t have been stolen.

Why are removable media not disabled?

Never mind the obvious issue of why a young and inexperienced junior enlisted man was allowed access to the information in the first place. If he hadn’t been able to copy everything to a CD and deliver it to WikiLeaks, the best he would have been able to accomplish would have been hand-written notes, and that would not have had the same impact.

What makes this Acer computer interesting is that it has a management tool that prevents the use of a mass storage device in any of its USB ports. Since it doesn’t have any other removable storage, that would make copying a quarter-million diplomatic e-mails pretty tough.

But it does more by also allowing the administrator to prevent booting from removable media, which means that someone can’t boot from an external drive and then read data on the installed drive. This is a pretty nice configuration, assuming the administrator goes to the trouble to implement these features.

But the Acer isn’t unique in this ability. The Windows Group Policy Manager has the ability to disable reading, writing or both from removable storage. You’ll need to invoke the Group Policy Editor, a snap-in to Microsoft’s Management console, to do this. But as an administrator you can push this policy out to other computers in your domain.

There are also a number of other resources that allow control over such removable devices. One I’ve used in the past is GFI’s EndPoint Security software, but a quick search on the Internet will turn up lots of others.