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Sometimes Security is More Than Protecting Data

Steven Brown
An IT Security Perspective

Issue 51: August 2006
Page: 1 of 1 Author's Profile | Send to a Friend | Printer Version
The primary reason for encryption and general computer security is to protect data. Encryption is pretty good these days, you can protect pretty much everything and store the encryption key somewhere safe.
If someone gets their hands on the encrypted data it will be pretty hard for them to decrypt it without the key.
Algorithms and key strengths continue to improve to stay ahead of computer processing power and algorithmic attacks.
Protecting of data using encryption is achievable, but most security does not end here.
When the data is part of communication, there are few other issues to deal with, in particular non-repudiation.

It is vital that the sender of a message or document is able to prove that they sent it on a particular time and date.
It is also import that whoever receives it is able to prove that it was sent to them on a particular time and date.
The ability to prove this gives people confidence when using the system, they can trust it.

Every system is vulnerable to attack, but we do the best that we can with the technology we have at the time.

So why is it that the health industry appears to be settling for second best when it comes to securing communications?
It's not just about protecting our private medical information.
It's about ensuring that the people who operate around us are acting on reliable information.
It's about knowing that if a mistake is made someone can be held accountable and action can be taken to prevent it from happening again.

Part of non-repudiation may involve the use of private keys that only the sender controls so that no-one can pretend to send a message as another person.
The government proposes to distribute private keys to users.
Maybe this is to avoid the hassle of lost keys, which can be a real issue.
Is this worth the security risks it brings?
If the government holds all the keys what stops staff from abusing their access to the keys? What stops someone from intercepting a key when it is being distributed?
What stops someone from requesting another person's key?

Another part of non-repudation may involve proving the time and date that a message was sent. This prevents people from being able to deny they sent a message at a particular time.
It also stops someone from sending a message dated in the past and being able to use this to their advantage.
Time non-repudation is seriously lacking in health communications software.
Until proper key management and time non-repudiation are implemented health communications software will remain seriously flawed.

So what is preventing the better security products from being implemented or even considered? What benefit can there be?
As far as I can tell there is no benefit to the general public, in fact there is only more risk.
At least the current paper system has a certain level of legal standing.
If the health industry is allowed to operate under sub-standard security levels it will only benefit those that seek to avoid responsibility for their mistakes, or those who intend to cause harm.

Technology does not necessarily mean better security, in fact sometimes it can make it easier to exploit the security if it is not properly implemented.
The people who bear the cost of poor security will be the general public, so there is not incentive for those creating the systems to bear the cost of better security.

So I ask, what is causing this trend towards poor security systems?
Is it lack of security knowledge or is it something more sinister?

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