The average cost of a data breach is now nearly R50-million, while breach costs have increased by nearly 20% over the last two years. Recent high-profile breaches and ransomware attacks are a stark reminder to C-suite leaders of how vulnerable their businesses are. Even those with undoubtedly robust security defences can be breached.

By Takalane Khashane, MD of Iron Mountain South Africa

Information security has never been more important. With a growing onus on business owners to protect their data and increasing data privacy legislation around the world imposing significant fines, the financial and reputational costs of a lax approach run deep.

But while cybersecurity is top of mind for the C-suite, many organisations still have a big gap in their security posture – how they manage their physical IT assets throughout every stage of their lifecycle.

Good asset lifecycle management is foundational to effective data security because even the best cybersecurity system can be futile if you do not integrate, maintain, and most importantly, decommission or dispose of your hardware and devices, securely.

Best practice for keeping an eye on your assets

Minimising your exposure to risks and liabilities requires visibility and control over all of your assets, both virtual and physical. With the boom in remote working adding to the challenge of keeping track of the devices going in and out of your organisation, it is more critical than ever to follow IT asset management best practices.

Ongoing surveillance, maintenance and risk mitigation of all assets is essential. To begin with, you should have an asset register that documents every piece of hardware introduced into your organisation, its purpose and who is responsible for it. The register should also monitor the equipment’s performance, health and protection, making sure that security applications are working and up to date.

All physical assets should be password protected, preferably with a forced password change policy in place, and when the software on a device is no longer supported by the manufacturer, the device should be upgraded. Using a patch management programme that regularly scans for any security flaws across all assets and any updates necessary for maintaining regulatory compliance, is key.

Perhaps the most crucial part is the end-of-life stage. There are criminals who salvage old hard drives from landfills or purchase recycled IT equipment, with the intention of recovering data from them for their own illicit gains. For this reason, it is vital to implement an asset disposition process that tracks the chain of custody and ensures that data is effectively wiped from disused assets – this should be the very first step in the retirement of any asset, yet it is not as straightforward as many people think.

What secure ITAD looks like

IT Asset Disposition (ITAD) should follow a well-defined protocol of a trusted chain of custody, comprehensive data erasure and dismantling into components for repurposing or recycling, or otherwise complete physical destruction.

Though it is a common misconception that erasing data is as simple as deleting files or reformatting a drive, in truth, such methods do not guarantee the full deletion of data at all.

Specialised data scrubbing software must be used and when destruction is required, the asset must be physically destroyed to the point that it is impossible to recover any data from it.

Third-party contractors can be employed for the disposal process. However, you need to ensure that they demonstrate the use of data wiping software certified to NIST 800-88 standard, can provide auditing reports that verify complete data erasure and provide proof of adequate physical destruction or dismantling of the asset. Non-compliant data erasure methods will leave the asset vulnerable to data recovery that is easily achieved with special software.

Furthermore, third-party handlers should offer a secure and fully visible chain of custody from the moment they take possession of the asset, through to when the destruction of the item is complete. Ideally, this will involve real-time asset tracking in which the asset is scanned and logged onto a system at every stage of its journey until disposal is recorded.

Once the asset is destroyed, you should expect to receive a Certificate of Erasure and a Certificate of Destruction for each asset. Following this process reduces the risk of equipment going missing and provides peace of mind that the asset has been disposed of properly, in line with the stringent standards that govern the quality and ethics of recycling such as eSteward and R2.

Cybersecurity is the chief concern in many boardrooms today, but vigilant management of physical assets must never be overlooked. The most advanced cybersecurity system in the world will not be enough to protect your data if a piece of hardware containing sensitive information finds its way into the wrong hands.

Asset Lifecycle Management (ALM) is core to any data security framework in the digital age and it is an element that no business can afford to be careless with. Indeed, failing to act can have very real consequences. It can leave an organisation vulnerable to enormous losses, not only from bad actors looking to exploit sensitive information but also from the heavy fines levied by data protection legislators and the reputational damage caused by failing to prevent an avoidable breach.