Securing Document Management Systems: Call for Standards, Leadership

By Joe Harpaz

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JULY 2005 -As companies become more reliant upon “paperless” electronic document management technologies, there is increasing need for those who manage this data to expand their knowledge base and implement security standards so that data cannot be compromised. For some, this means hiring full-time, in-house staff to manage security features, or expanding the role of existing IT resources. For others, retaining an outside vendor that can provide this type of expertise, including software, hardware, and maintenance, is easier and less expensive. Whichever option a company chooses, it should become more involved in setting the standards for the security of client financial data.

What Makes a System Secure?

Many businesses think that information that is housed off-site and managed by an outside firm is less secure. In reality, most electronic data management companies are extremely stringent about security measures. They will secure the entire system, scan for vulnerabilities, provide back-up solutions, and update and maintain software regularly.

Many software and database applications originally designed to be run on internal networks, with security on a very basic functionality level. Increasingly, corporated networks are now connected to the Internet, making them (and the applications on the network) potentially available to an intruder. If these systems are not consistently updated and maintained with proper security features, a network may be exposed to outside vulnerabilities.

When assessing security risks, the company should look at every layer of the system: the program (e.g., document management software), the network (e.g., firewalls), and the operating system (e.g., Microsoft Windows). Any gaps in these layers and the company is at risk.

Where data reside—in-house, on a network, or on the Internet—has little to do with security. The key is to maintain procedures and manage security updates on an ongoing basis. For example, Microsoft provides almost daily updates on vulnerabilities in its systems and on how to patch and update the systems. But if no one in a company is implementing these updates daily, the data are vulnerable. Vendors that publicly post their security vulnerabilities inherently expose themselves to those risks as they become known and accessible to those looking to leverage weaknesses.

Surprisingly, the majority of information theft in corporations is committed by employees, not by outsiders or so-called hackers. According to a survey reported by MSNBC technology correspondent Bob Sullivan in May 2004, as much as 70% of all identity theft starts with the theft of personal data from a company by an employee. Many businesses fail to consider this when examining their electronic information systems. Having an in-house IT administrator with access to everything within the company’s data banks may present a major source of risk.

Basic guidelines for managing a secure network and application environment include the following:

  • Stringent policies and procedures;
  • Physical security, including setting limitations for equipment and network access;
  • Ongoing efforts to update, patch, and maintain all components to applications so all known vulnerabilities are fixed regularly;
  • Vulnerability estimates, including regular scans of the entire system, for errors or configurations that could present security “holes”; and
  • Management of audit trails and audit logs to monitor access to information for indicators of unusual activity or intrusions.

The International Standards Organization (ISO) 17799 standards, released in December 2000, provide a starting point for security for companies managing sensitive data. The over-80-page document outlines a code of practice for information security, corporate networks, and application development that is emerging as a widely recognized standard worldwide. The ISO rules are a great tool to introduce awareness into a company; however, they do not necessarily solve all of the critical issues. This guide is very comprehensive and identifies key security issues, such as:

  • Information security policy;
  • Organizational security, infrastructure, and third-party access;
  • Asset classification and control;
  • Personnel security;
  • Physical and environmental security;
  • Communications and operations management;
  • Access control;
  • Systems development and control;
  • Business continuity; and
  • Compliance.

Companies looking at internal security should familiarize themselves with ISO 17799. At minimum, those responsible for technology decisions should ask targeted questions about security. For example: Does the IT staff follow the ISO or similar rules? What is the vendor doing about application security?

Accounting firms bear the responsibility for ensuring the security of client data, and although some firms may have the knowledge and resources to successfully maintain in-house applications, such as a document management system, they should consider a web-based or application service provider (ASP) model, in which the vendor provides and maintains the application. In doing this, the CPA firm should also ensure that the vendor provides effective security measures. For example, systems that are maintained in secure data centers can provide multiple layers of physical and electronic security that simply aren’t feasible for accounting firms to maintain. There are other security measures to consider: Does the vendor provide third-party vulnerability reviews to examine and evaluate their systems and to implement additional layers of security? Does the vendor provide ongoing monitoring to protect and prevent violations of security and ensure business continuity during disasters?

Joe Harpaz is executive vice president and cofounder of Immediatech Corporation (, which provides web-hosted document management solutions for CPA firms.




















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