Protecting Data in the Age of the NSA

By Paul Mah | Posted July 03, 2013

The recent revelation about PRISM, the National Security Agency’s (NSA) extensive spy program probably came as a shock to many people, or then again, maybe not. Either way, it highlights how vulnerable digital communication is to clandestine monitoring from government bodies with the power to compel cooperation from Internet companies.

And it's not just governments you need to be concerned about; spying extends to hackers who successfully infiltrate popular Internet services organizations.

Of course protecting your data and your privacy is a much bigger job and entails a lot more moving parts than we can cover in a simple blog post. With this in mind, here are a few basic steps that small and mid-sized businesses can take to start better protecting their privacy.

Use a VPN

If you want to ensure the privacy of your company's Internet communication,

Set up a virtual private network (if you don't already have one) for employees who work on the go. And make sure they use it.

While a VPN used to be inordinately difficult and expensive to deploy, the complexity and cost has come down considerably over the years. A VPN is especially important given the proliferation and use of public hotspots, including the unencrypted wireless access found in many airports, coffee shops and hotel rooms.

Encrypt Cloud Storage

The NSA debacle is probably the best argument ever for not storing corporate files in the cloud. Still, you can safely store data—judiciously—in the cloud as long as you use a strong encryption scheme such as AES-256.

Fortunately, many cloud storage services such as SpiderOak and Mozy do offer the capability to encrypt files with a private key prior to uploading your files. Encrypting the data means that even the cloud storage providers will not be able to access your data. Of course, if you lose your decryption key (password) you won’t be able to access it, either. Make sure that you create appropriate backups of the decryption key.

Host Your Own Email Server

Finally, if you're really concerned about securing your email communications, you might want to set up your own email servers in-house instead of relying on a hosted email provider. To be clear, an on-site email server offers no protection against incoming or outgoing emails that are transmitted in clear text from network snooping. And it won't protect against hackers who compromise your organization’s server.

Still, businesses can at least rest better knowing that a secret subpoena will not allow the government to access the entire content of your organization’s email server in one fell swoop.

What measures, if any, are you looking at to tighten your small business security?

Paul Mah covers technology for SMBs for Small Business Computing and for IT Business Edge. He also shares his passion for and knowledge of everything from networking to operating systems as an instructor at Republic Polytechnic in Singapore, and is a contributor to a number of tech sites, including Ars Technica and TechRepublic.

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