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Chapter: Security in Computing : Administering Security

Interception of Sensitive Information

When disposing of a draft copy of a confidential report containing its sales strategies for the next five years, a company wants to be especially sure that the report is not reconstructable by one of its competitors.

Interception of Sensitive Information


When disposing of a draft copy of a confidential report containing its sales strategies for the next five years, a company wants to be especially sure that the report is not reconstructable by one of its competitors. When the report exists only as hard copy, destroying the report is straightforward, usually accomplished by shredding or burning. But when the report exists digitally, destruction is more problematic. There may be many copies of the report in digital and paper form and in many locations (including on the computer and on storage media). There may also be copies in backups and archived in e-mail files. In this section, we look at several ways to dispose of sensitive information.




Shredders have existed for a long time, as devices used by banks, government agencies, and others organizations to dispose of large amounts of confidential data. Although most of the shredded data is on paper, shredders can also be used for destroying printer ribbons and some types of disks and tapes. Shredders work by converting their input to thin strips or pulp, with enough volume to make it infeasible for most people to try to reconstruct the original from its many pieces. When data are extremely sensitive, some organizations burn the shredded output for added protection.

Overwriting Magnetic Data


Magnetic media present a special problem for those trying to protect the contents. When data are stored on magnetic disks, the ERASE or DELETE functions often simply change a directory pointer to free up space on the disk. As a result, the sensitive data are still recorded on the medium, and they can be recovered by analysis of the directory. A more secure way to destroy data on magnetic devices is to overwrite the data several times, using a different pattern each time. This process removes enough magnetic residue to prevent most people from reconstructing the original file. However, "cleaning" a disk in this fashion takes time. Moreover, a person using highly specialized equipment might be able to identify each separate message, much like the process of peeling off layers of wallpaper to reveal the wall beneath.




Degaussers destroy magnetic fields. Passing a disk or other magnetic medium through a degausser generates a magnetic flux so forceful that all magnetic charges are instantly realigned, thereby fusing all the separate layers. A degausser is a fast way to cleanse a magnetic medium, although there is still question as to whether it is adequate for use in the most sensitive of applications. (Media that have had the same pattern for a long time, such as a disk saved for archival purposes, may retain traces of the original pattern even after it has been overwritten many times or degaussed.) For most users, a degausser is a fast way to neutralize a disk or tape, permitting it to be reused by others.


Protecting Against Emanation: Tempest


Computer screens emit signals that can be detected from a distance. In fact, any components, including printers, disk drives, and processors, can emit information. Tempest is a U.S. government program under which computer equipment is certified as emission-free (that is, no detectable emissions). There are two approaches for preparing a device for Tempest certification: enclosing the device and modifying the emanations.


The obvious solution to preventing emanations is to trap the signals before they can be picked up. Enclosing a device in a conductive case, such as copper, diffuses all the waves by conducting them throughout the case. Copper is a good conductor, and the waves travel much better through copper than through the air outside the case, so the emissions are rendered harmless.


This solution works very well with cable, which is then enclosed in a solid, emanation-proof shield. Typically, the shielded cable is left exposed so that it is easy to inspect visually for any signs of tapping or other tampering. The shielding must be complete. That is, it does little good to shield a length of cable but not also shield the junction box at which that cable is connected to a component. The line to the component and the component itself must be shielded, too.


The shield must enclose the device completely. If top, bottom, and three sides are shielded, emanations are prevented only in those directions. However, a solid copper shield is useless in front of a computer screen. Covering the screen with a fine copper mesh in an intricate pattern carries the emanation safely away. This approach solves the emanation problem while still maintaining the screen's usability.


Entire computer rooms or even whole buildings can be shielded in copper so that large computers inside do not leak sensitive emanations. Although it seems appealing to shield the room or building instead of each component, the scheme has significant drawbacks. A shielded room is inconvenient because it is impossible to expand the room easily as needs change. The shielding must be done carefully, because any puncture is a possible point of emanation. Furthermore, continuous metal pathways, such as water pipes or heating ducts, act as antennas to convey the emanations away from their source.


Emanations can also be designed in such a way that they cannot be retrieved. This process is similar to generating noise in an attempt to jam or block a radio signal. With this approach, the emanations of a piece of equipment must be modified by addition of spurious signals. Additional processors are added to Tempest equipment specifically to generate signals that fool an interceptor. The exact Tempest modification methods are classified.


As might be expected, Tempest-enclosed components are larger and heavier than their unprotected counterparts. Tempest testing is a rigorous program of the U.S. Department of Defense. Once a product has been approved, even a minor design modification, such as changing from one manufacturer's power supply to an equivalent one from another manufacturer, invalidates the Tempest approval.


Therefore, these components are costly, ranging in price from 10 percent to 300 percent more than similar non-Tempest products. They are most appropriate in situations in which the data to be confined are of great value, such as top-level government information. Other groups with less dramatic needs can use other less rigorous shielding.

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