This week's revelations about the existence of the Echelon electronic spying network did little to allay our fears of some "big brother" out there, watching our every move.
With a real threat that all our calls, emails and faxes could be intercepted, European MPs advised that we should encrypt all our emails to guard against prying eyes.
What the advice failed to take into account was the threat posed by encrypted viruses slipping through the net. Secure data may ensure confidentiality, but it increases the vulnerability of networks to virus attacks if the correct measures and procedures are ignored.
There's no doubt that scanning data through encryption is vital for any company wanting to guard its competitive advantage, or any individual wanting to keep their messages private. But equally, the encryption of emails makes virus detection far more complicated if you don't have the right defences in place.
Scanning at the internet gateway simply isn't sufficient to defend against encrypted viruses. If a user opens an encrypted mail, containing a virus, on a PC without desktop protection, there is no defence to stop viruses spreading internally.
Is it necessary for corporations to choose between one of two evils? Virus scanning is vital for the health of a network, but eavesdropping is also a risk to companies who face losing confidential information to outsiders.
Companies can't rely on one piece of software to solve all their security worries. It's an age-old problem: corporations think that buying an 'off-the-shelf' virus solution will be the end to all their woes.
But to simply install virus protection at the gateway is not enough to protect against encrypted mails that only you can open on your desktop. If companies decide to encrypt all mails that leave their network, then surely they need to reconsider current security policies.
McAfee, as part of Network Associates, exists alongside PGP security, so we can see the argument from both sides. From a corporate perspective there is no need to compromise on either the security or anti-virus solution. It is simply a case of ensuring that one evolves with the other.
There should be no need for serious debate on where is best to stop viruses: at the desktop or internet gateway. If a company relies on one level of protection alone, it puts users and the network at risk.
This issue of who is actually encrypting data at present is an interesting one. A survey conducted by Network Associates in November 2000 found that only 40 per cent of businesses in the UK encrypt corporate data. In light of the Echelon news and growing awareness of the importance of encrypted data, we would expect this percentage to rise over the next 18 months.
If companies currently use encryption at any level, or are looking to implement it, they need to look carefully at their security policy. A tiered approach to security is the only way to defend a network. Protect the gateway, protect the desktops and protect the user, ensuring that all bases are covered.
As viruses get more sophisticated and encryption becomes more than just a luxury in the workplace, ebusinesses need to adapt their defences. One type of security or one level of virus protection isn't enough.
Hackers, crackers and virus writers, like the technology they use, are evolving at a frightening pace, and IT departments need to be matching them every step of the way.
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