CXO

Peter Cochrane's Blog: Security and 'toilet paper'

It's amazing what you can find in a waste bin...

Written in Porto during a frantic series of flights transiting Portugal, the UK and the US. Despatched from Philadelphia on a free wi-fi service provided by a conference organiser

Now and again you might spot some vagrant rummaging around in a public litterbin hoping to find something of value. I always feel saddened at the sight and see it as a real shame that we as a society can't cure the problem in some humane way. Paradoxically I'm pretty sure that if we came across the unexpected sight of someone well dressed, in a business suit, with their hands in a waste bin we would probably be motivated to enquire why and then do something about it!

Until recently I could not imagine how it felt to be looking through public waste bins. Well! There I was in a hotel men's room washing my hands when I looked down at the waste bin. The top of a document was clearly visible with the title: Police National Network Plan for XXX. Erm, well, I couldn't help myself! Without a thought I reached in, recovered the document in its entirety and after a quick sort through the remaining rubbish, recovered several appendices. At that point I had a quick look over my shoulder but the coast was clear. Phew!

A few days later, at an international airport I had a repeat experience with a document left in the lounge area. This time the document title contained the words: Avian Influenza Crisis Response and Management in XXX.

Reading both these documents was interesting as I think they contained non-public information that was, to say the least, sensitive and should have been ranked confidential or secret. For sure the data and planning information was not for the public or press. So I destroyed both and spread the torn sheets across several waste bins to avoid their reconstruction.

We hear an awful lot about electronic security and the lengths to which companies and governments go to secure their email and data. But always the real threat is human fallibility. People just do stupid things! I dare bet that both those documents I found in waste bins were distributed over a very secure email network, only to be printed on paper for reading later. And judging by their level and tone, perhaps it was a secretary printing them out for her IT-incapable-but-security-paranoid boss. Who knows?

Anyway, I now have a new hobby - data mining! So... if you see a well-dressed guy with a laptop rummaging around in a public or company waste bin somewhere, don't take pity on him, just leave him be - unless you want to buy him a coffee and have chat about security that is!

PS: Police forces and health authorities everywhere: sleep easy, my lips really are sealed!

About

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.