NDA does not need to mean No Digital Access

During my “day job”, I work on many projects that are subject to Non Disclosure Agreements (NDA). These projects range from new product development to new projects that have not been announced to details of clients and project contents. There are various levels of diligence called out in each agreement. I am not giving any legal advice on enforcement and application of NDA’s I am sharing some of the principles and practices that are common and I have found helpful. If in doubt, check with your legal advisor or company counsel.

The level of “paranoia” for lack of a better word you want to follow is up to you. I follow the most stringent NDA policies for all of my NDA projects. The reason is that remembering the nuances of each one is difficult. Some people find it humorous my personal level of privacy and security awareness, however these practices apply and help me be aware of things not typically considered. Some of the things I worry about may not be practical for your scenarios but it is still good to think about for things beyond projects. Confidentiality of things such as payroll, checking account balances, insurance information… etc. are still a part of daily life.

The most effective practice I use is both simple and often overlooked. Chuck Palahniuk said it most succinctly, “The first rule of Fight Club is do not talk about Fight Club.” Seems rather simple, but it is often forgotten. I work within a large company [Harman] there are multiple teams and departments, about 28,000 employees total. Not everyone needs to know everything, engineering does not need to know that I am working with Bob’s Country Bunker on their expansion. If an engineer comes to me as they go to the Bunker every weekend and asks about the expansion, my answer is simple. “Sorry, I don’t know anything about it.” Yes, a lie or a fib. It also means that you are not as likely to be asked as many questions by friends looking for information. It also means not talking about the project in public, especially at industry conventions. However what I get out of this approach is I do not have to worry about someone else leaking the information.

People think it is odd that I have specific USB flashdrives or thumbdrives for different purposes and projects. Using a thumbdrive to share data can easily lots of data  being shared unexpectedly. I hand person A a thumbdrive with person B’s data on it (that is covered by a non-disclosure agreement). Person A would then know about the project and if unscrupulous could have person B’s data. People don’t always think about it, but by sharing a USB drive one is basically sharing part of their computer’s hard drive. There are of course the other reasons such as not wanting to get a virus. My solution is that I format the thumbdrive when appropriate. Typically it is after a customer visit or a system commissioning. I will also backup and then erase the contents of the drive often during the process. None of us have ever lost a thumbdrive with key information on it.

This same approach holds for network storage and sharing solutions. Most people will think about Dropbox, SpiderOak, Google Drive, Box … etc. but these are not the only sharing services to be aware of. A standard computer attached to a network has the same issues at times. A company typically has a network server for storing and sharing project data, very often in addition to that the sharing feature on a laptop will be enabled as well. The shared drive or directory on a computer is most likely the largest liability of these items. If you want to know why, use the network in a hotel, coffeehouse, or even in an airplane. Depending on the security settings of the network one might be able to see other computers on the same network. Very often to make the computer user’s experience simpler shared directories or folders will advertise itself. Now everyone connected to the network is aware that there is a share on the network.

These services are very powerful and convenient. However misconfiguration can be very bad. The sharing features typically get set and forgotten, so data is just sitting around all over the place. Did you remember to change who has access to what within Dropbox? Is your Shared directory still active for everyone to see and edit documents. Did you turn off the sharing for the person that left the company? Is your network storage at home available via the Internet, does it have a strong password and current firmware? Are you using Two Factor Authentication (2FA), if not – why not?

There is the specter of e-mail and how easy it is to not redact or remove information before forwarding it. This issue becomes more and more important as the projects are more and more complex. I often will read an e-mail and store it, some contracts require that. If I need to gather more information from another party I do not simply forward the e-mail, I rewrite it to be as generic as possible. Part of this process is to make sure I understand the question I am asking. Part of it is just preventing information from being shared. Yes, we might work for the same company but I am the one who was given the information, often the NDA indicates that I can only share information when necessary.

I can continue with such things as lock your computer when you are not using it. Don’t carry information you don’t need to on your laptop; especially when you travel. That seems easy to say I know, and it is more realistic than ever to do. I can connect to a server that is secure via VPN connection and retrieve the documents I need when I need them. (This approach can also be helpful and preventative if a laptop is lost or a hard drive fails.)

Encrypt important data. Yes, the encryption word. It is important. It is not new. In the late 1990’s I was working on a theme park project just as e-mail was becoming common. To transmit documents electronically we were required to send them encrypted using Pretty Good Privacy or PGP encryption. I am not going into all the details, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has written a good article providing an overview. This process meant that I would compress a file, then encode it via PGP, then attach it to a message and send it. This process still exists and is still very viable. I encrypt data on my hard drive and on the cloud using PGP encryption, sometimes called GPG on Mac and Linux. Beyond just the encryption the fact that the email has a much higher probability of not being spoofed is reason enough to use it for me. If you want to test it out, my key can be found at my blog post.

Now that everyone is concerned, how to make things better so that you are not the leak? The first item is the Fight Club rule. The second task is I encrypt my connections and data whenever possible (check with your company’s IT department as the last thing that anyone wants is to have data be inaccessible). Find secure solutions for hosting data on the cloud. There are many solutions, I am not going to endorse one or claim one is better than the other, the key item I look for is 2FA. This process means that the person trying to gain access to an account will not only need the password, but a second piece of information to gain entry. Typically this is a numerical value, it can either be generated on a device such as a handheld digital device or sent via e-mail or text. There is more information about 2FA available from EFF as well. I have enabled it on the AVNation website administration tools and everywhere else I can, including Google and Apple cloud solutions. I think that this would go without saying, but just in case; do not click the remember me or have the browser remember your password. That basically means if someone has your computer they have access to all the site.

I am sure by this point I sound paranoid, however I will say that adhering to Non-Disclosure Agreements is valuable for business. No one wants to know as the person who leaked information. It is easier to make sure no one leaks the information by not letting them know about the project. Keeping projects secret and being digitally accessible is very possible. It requires attention to detail and understanding the processes. Do not let it scare you.

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