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Document Security: Protecting Physical and Electronic Content

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Several electronic layers exist in most documents, a fact overlooked by many writers. Probing these sublayers often reveals information not intended for release by the author. Documents in electronic formats create a “palimpsest” that even semiskilled investigators can probe for sensitive data.

Palimpsest seems like an exotic word. But literally, it means “scraped again” from the Greek word roots. In ancient and medieval Europe, writers often scraped off previous writing on a manuscript and wrote new text. (Writing media were in short supply and were expensive.) With modern forensic techniques like ultraviolet light and photography researchers uncover the original layer of writing.

Using computer forensic techniques, twenty-first century sleuths discover text and data in electronic documents thought erased by previous users. Modern electronic media are inherently palimpsestuous. Secrets become visible through metadata in documents, slack space in files, magnetic remanence, and other thorny ironies of information retention. They disclose information often, under the radar, by unintentionally making sensitive information Web-facing or not encrypting data on a laptop, which results in information leakage.

Overconfidence that one’s sensitive data is not leaking through to the outside world will vex security professionals in the twenty-first century. Immense security resources go to prevent deliberate network intrusion. However, content security is not always on the forefront of security thinking. More information leaks out of organizations unintentionally than corporate America would like to think about. Many of the most recent headline-grabbers about security breaches involve documents or files leaked by a stolen laptop or by “misplaced” computer tapes or by being inadvertently Web-facing. The text identifies common pitfalls in document security and suggests remedies to prevent future headlines.

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