A worker calls up a sensitive investor list and downloads it on her thumb drive, slips it into her pocket, and walks out, smiling and waving to her boss and the security officer stationed at the front door.
This is just one of the scenarios that security professionals and IT managers are increasingly worried about. According to one recent study, IT managers said portable storage devices, such as thumb drives and MP3 players, have surpassed even malware to become a top concern.
The study, which polled 370 IT professionals, showed that 38.4% of IT managers say portable storage devices are their top security concern. That's up from 25.7% in 2006.
"It is very easy to download information to them quickly," said Bill Piwonka, VP of product management for Centennial Software, which conducted the survey at this spring's InfoSec security conference in London. "If there isn't a defined acceptable use policy or controls to prevent the download and transfer of sensitive data, managers do not know if and how such data is leaving the building. Also, USB sticks are frequently lost. If sensitive data isn't encrypted on these devices, it would obviously be very easy to obtain."
To make matters worse, 80% of respondents admitted that their organizations don't currently have effective measures in place to combat the unauthorized use of portable devices. And 43.2% cited no control at all. Only 8.6% have a total ban on portable devices.
Piwonka said in an interview that that danger with portable storage devices lies in not knowing what files have been maliciously or even unintentionally downloaded to them, and how that data is being used. And if it has been lost, who has the information?
A worker easily could download corporate information -- sales figures, customer lists, marketing plans -- onto a small storage device, slip it into their bag or even a pocket, and just walk out the door with it. It makes stealing information much easier since it's not a matter of printing anything out or even walking out of the office with a laptop slung over a shoulder.
While IT managers fear what users might do with a portable storage device, they also really like them for themselves.
The study showed that 65% of IT managers use a USB flash drive on a daily basis.
"Portable devices do have a function in the workplace," said Piwonka. "They are an easy way to share, transfer, and store information. Managers need to create an acceptable use policy and share it with their employees to further control the handling of sensitive data."