Bomb with lit fuseLaw firms, like most businesses today, have embraced the convenient but usually hidden technologies known as the “Internet of Things.”  This extension of internet connectivity into everyday objects and physical devices offers everything from constant video monitoring, to automatic locks, to dynamic heating and cooling adjustments.  IoT devices look, listen, transmit, and record trillions of data points, and a report by ForeScout Technologies suggests that the number of connected devices will reach more than 20 billion by next year.

But all this convenience comes at a price.  IoT devices are particularly vulnerable to compromise because they are relatively invisible to routine patching (if they allow patches), often do not have any security safeguards, and do not always have access controls.  An infected device can, for example, open the backdoor to denial of service attacks, enable hacker control of locks and surveillance equipment, open opportunities for snooping and recording of phone calls, and generally create a gateway through which to launch spam campaigns, steal data, and change credentials.

Let’s look at some vulnerable IoT devices commonly found in today’s law firm:

IP-Connected Security Systems and Infrastructure.  Think of cameras, smart meters, and HVAC controls.  Hacks of these devices can cause problems ranging from spying via video and audio, to destruction or disabling of critical equipment to disrupt operations or to allow for physical break-in.

Smart Video Conference Systems.  This category includes smart TVs, as well as DVR devices, which are typically connected via Wi-Fi or Ethernet.  Compromise scenarios include real-time monitoring of communication, as well as use of the system as a launch pad to the network.

Printers & Phones.  Wireless printers can allow almost undetectable access to confidential information (real-time or stored jobs) or, if compromised generally could allow a hacker to obtain administrative passwords and create a network bridge.  Because VoIP phones are internet connected, their configuration settings may be compromised to allow call snooping or even to create outbound calls.

Light Bulbs?  Yes, light bulbs!  According to the above ForeScout report, smart lightbulbs operate on Wi-Fi and mesh networks.  “In a wireless mesh network, the network connection is spread out among dozens or even hundreds of wireless mesh nodes that “talk” to each other to share the network connection across a large area.”  The more nodes, the more avenues for entry into a system without being on the network.
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Sunshine Breaking Through the CloudsYes, with a troubling threat environment and unique vulnerabilities, law firms indeed have data security challenges.  But there are strategic opportunities too.  When firms are serious about their data safeguards and take concrete steps to strengthen their security profile, they better position themselves for stronger client relationships, lower and better-controlled expenses, and higher revenue.

As always, context matters. The legal services industry has changed dramatically in the last decade, with private practice law firms facing:

  • increased competition from nontraditional providers and technology-driven service models;
  • the Internet-driven dissolving of historic barriers to remote service delivery;
  • the post-recession tightening in companies’ outside legal spend;
  • the ongoing shift of work from outside counsel to in-house legal staff;
  • the continued consolidation of client work in fewer, preferred law firms with geographic bench-strength or industry/specialty focus; and
  • the resulting pressure on mid-sized firms to scale/merge up or to specialize/boutique down.

It’s a more competitive world than ever for attracting and retaining clients. There still will be winners and losers, but now the margin of difference is more slim.  That’s why strategic improvement in a law firm’s data security posture can make a big difference.

Here are three key examples of how better data security is a strategic win for law firms:
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pickpocket stealing walletIn a federal court criminal complaint filed yesterday, the Department of Justice alleges that Paige Thompson hacked into Capital One Financial Corporation’s cloud storage earlier this year and exfiltrated large volumes of Capital One’s consumer data.

The complaint paints a picture of an alleged hacker living up to the handle “erratic.”  According to the complaint,

Lightning Strike in ThunderstormSecurity risks flow from threats coupled with vulnerabilities – and when it comes to data security, law firms are uniquely vulnerable.

Law firms have highly valuable information.

Like any other business, firms have employee personal data, including SSNs, payroll data, and health plan data, along with financial and tax information for the firm itself and its owners.  Yet law firms also have something far more attractive than other businesses – a concentrated trove of client data, such as nonpublic issuer information; client trade secrets; confidential information on client business strategies, controversial matters and transactions, and litigation; sensitive information with reputational impact for public and private individuals and institutions; and on and on.  Law firms also have information and credentials that can serve as gateways to clients’ systems, through hacking or social engineering.

Many firms are behind the curve on data security safeguards. 

Despite their valuable information, many law firms are demonstrably lax in their data security posture.  Results of the 2018 ABA Legal Technology Survey reveal a bleak picture for law firm data security controls:

  • Less than half of the responding firms have the following policies or plans that are important facets of a law firm’s security posture:  computer acceptable use policy (41%); remote access policy (37%); personal technology use/BYOD policy (21%); incident response plan (25%); disaster recovery / business continuity plan (40%).
  • Only 53% of the firms have a formal policy or process to manage retention of data held by the firm, and as of 2017, only 40% have an official records retention schedule.
  • 31% of the firms allow personal mobile devices (tablets, laptops, smartphones) to access the firm’s network without any restrictions.
  • Only 46% of the firms have file encryption tools, only 38% have email encryption capabilities, and only 24% have full disk encryption.
  • Among the responding firms that utilize cloud IT services, fewer than than half report using basic security precautions such as evaluating the provider company’s history (27%); reviewing the provider’s privacy policy (38%) or terms of use (34%); using only web-based software with encryption features (36%); or making regular local data backups (41%).

In the midst of a troubling threat environment, why are so many firms still behind the curve in their data security safeguards?  Here are ten factors to consider:
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Threatening dark clouds covering the skyJust another day at the firm.  The case was settled, with a $500,000 payment to be made to the approved settlement administrator.  The law firm received an email from the administrator with wire transfer directions, and the settlement funds were sent per the instructions.  Just one problem – the email didn’t come from the administrator, the receiving bank was not the right bank, and the half million dollars evaporated.  Poof – gone in an instant.

Sure, it would’ve been prudent for the law firm to have picked up the phone and independently verified the email sender and instructions.  But how did the bad guys know precisely to whom and when to send the phony email, and exactly what to say?  Was it from publicly available information in the court file?  Was there a rogue insider at the firm, or at one of the other litigant’s firms, or at the court, or with the settlement administrator?  Or was someone’s email account illicitly monitored after being compromised by malware or through phished access credentials?

Business email compromise (BEC) is a growing threat for businesses generally.  Reports of BEC incidents to the federal Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) have doubled from 2016 to 2018, with the dollar amounts rising nearly threefold, from $110 million monthly in 2016 to over $300 million monthly in 2018.

But BEC is only one of many potent threats to law firm data security.  Here are some high-profile examples from the news:
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One Bullet in Gun BarrelHaving too much data causes problems beyond needless storage costs, workplace inefficiencies, and uncontrolled litigation expenses.  Keeping data without a legal or business reason also exacerbates data security exposures.  To put it bluntly, businesses that tolerate troves of unnecessary data are playing cybersecurity roulette … with even larger caliber ammunition.

Surprisingly few U.S. data security laws and standards expressly require that protected data be compliantly disposed of once legal and business-driven retention periods expire.   PCI DSS v3.2.1, Requirement 3.1, provides “[k]eep cardholder data storage to a minimum by implementing data retention and disposal policies ….”  HIPAA regulations  mandate that business associate agreements require service providers, upon contract termination, to return or destroy all PHI received or created on the covered entity’s behalf, if feasible.  Alabama and Colorado require that records containing state-level PII be disposed of when such records are no longer needed.  And biometric data privacy laws in Illinois, Texas, and Washington generally require that biometric data be disposed of once it has served its authorized purpose.

Instead, most such laws and standards focus on securely sanitizing or destroying storage media.  For example, the NIST Cybersecurity Framework v. 1.1 includes as a security control (PR.IP-6) that “[d]ata is destroyed according to policy,” and ISO 27002 (§ 8.3.2) provides that “[m]edia should be disposed of securely when no longer required, using formal procedures.”

But data security is not achieved by simply running through a checklist of explicit compliance requirements – it instead requires assessing risks and establishing effective security controls.  And one of the most powerful security controls is to not keep too much data, for too long.
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Hands pointing towards businessman holding head in hands Being a CISO is a tough gig.  The perpetual deluge of news items on hack after hack, breach after breach, has finally conveyed that data security is an imperative for all companies, large and small.  But the perception still lingers that the Chief Information Security Officer (or her InfoSec team) will single-handedly prevent breaches at “our” company – and if one should occur, will take care of the response.  For some CISOs, it may feel like High Noon, all over again.

This is unfair to the CISO, and wrong on at least two counts.  First, regardless of the CISO’s job description, the full range of cyber risk exceeds the scope of the CISO’s practical control.  Second, effective breach response requires up to ten channels of coordinated activity, and nine of the ten fall outside of the CISO’s authority.
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Depressed employee with laptopMost people have elevated stress during the holiday season — work, travel, family, money, time.  And holiday stress can make people inattentive, tired, frustrated, and willing to take short cuts, especially when it comes to computer and Internet use.  This is when mistakes happen.  It’s when we decide to evade policy by emailing work home or by using the unsecured airport Wi-Fi because our plane is delayed.  It’s also when malicious acts of information theft, sabotage, and fraud can more easily occur and go undetected.

According to a recent survey, insider threats — as opposed to outside actors — can account for nearly 75% of cyber incidents.  These incidents occur because of the actions of employees, suppliers, customers, and previous employees.  Law firms are not exempt, particularly small to medium size firms.  In fact, smaller firms typically have fewer resources to devote to cybersecurity and use more outside suppliers.

End-of-year activities for law firms also make them especially vulnerable to insider threats, whether inadvertent or malicious: the push to bill and collect for more hours, time-sensitive legal matters that must be resolved before the end of the calendar year, attending to year-end tax accounting, case and client review, bonus calculations.  Lawyers and their staff feel the strain of extra hours, looming deadlines, and sometimes contentious clients at the same time we all feel holiday pressures at home.

What is at risk?
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Last Piece of PuzzleWhew – we’ve survived yet another round of states enacting or amending their PII breach notification laws.  If a trial lawyer’s vacation is the time between her question and the witness’s answer, a data security lawyer’s vacation is when state legislatures are out of session.

Back in 2002, California enacted the first state law mandating notification of individuals whose personally identifiable information (PII) is breached.  Now every state has followed suit, with the final two holdouts, Alabama and South Dakota, joining the other forty-eight states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands by enacting PII breach notification statutes.  Each state has its own unique approach, and the states continue to expand their requirements, especially their definitions of what constitutes PII and the timing and content of mandated notifications.

These laws are triggered by the affected individuals’ residency, not where the breach occurred. So, when an organization with employees or customers in many states suffers a data breach, it must comply with a wide variety of conflicting and evolving state breach notification laws. And differ and evolve they do:
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