RSAC 2011: Lost assets and incident response - learn from my fail

Smartphones and other mobile devices are a visible part of the personal and professional world. More often than not, business and personal lives are mixed on a single device. How do you protect the data on those assets, especially Smartphones, if the worst happens and it's lost or stolen?

As I said, mobile devices are everywhere. I use one, a Motorola Droid Pro to be exact. I use it to manage my calendar, as well as my personal and business contacts. When I add my T60 (IBM ThinkPad) to the mix, I have a mobile office. It's more than just a work phone; I use the camera on my Droid Pro to snap images of my kids and friends. I’m texting people constantly. It offers instant access to my connected world.

On Wednesday evening during the RSA Conference, that connection was abruptly cut. To be clear it was entirely my fault.

While in a rush, I lost my phone. My first reaction was anger, at myself and the rude taxi driver who rushed me and one other out of the cab. Panic set in next. I realized there was nothing I could do until the morning. For a few hours, my phone and the data on it - personal and professional - was exposed.

After those feelings, I was embarrassed and felt dumb about the whole situation. It was the first time I've lost a phone. Just my luck it would happen during a security conference I'm covering, at a time when it was critical to my work flow. By Thursday morning, I was over the initial shock and loss.

I'm a list maker, so I had written down my plans of things to do in the event I lost a phone. The problem is, the list was stored on the memory card inside my recently lost phone. The irony wasn't lost on me, but at least I had some basic idea of what is needed.

Don't panic

I failed here, because I did panic. It got me nothing and nowhere. For this reason, it is important that you not panic when you first realize you have lost an asset, be it a phone or laptop. If you keep a level head, you may realize where you left it, and with luck you can get it back.

Retrace your steps

If an asset is lost, go back and look for it by playing the events leading up to the loss in reverse. For me, that meant calling the taxi company where my phone was lost. This led to a conversation that essentially told me I was up a creek with no paddle. For others, it could mean talking to hotel staff, looking in a lobby or hotel room, or perhaps at the table where a meal was just completed.

However, while this may lead to recovery, you cannot count on it. Some people will find a laptop or phone and turn it in, a majority will not.

Change all passwords used on a service or account associated with the lost asset

Honestly, you should just change all of your passwords just to be safe.

If you use and Android-based phone or iPhone, one of the fist things you need to change are your passwords for their services. This will prevent anyone snooping from getting access to email and contacts stored on the device. While password changes will limit exposure on Apple's devices, on Android it’s hit or miss. What a password change will do is prevent new information from dropping onto the lost device.

It isn’t easy to come up with a list of accounts and passwords that need changed. Many of us store passwords on mobile assets and never think twice about what they are. So if you need to change them, the fact that you can’t remember them leads to a personal level of chaos.

This is part of the pain that comes with an asset loss incident, but it can be somewhat avoided. Passwords should be personal and easy to remember. Mine were, so resetting them wasn’t that hard, just time consuming. Here is some of the pain I experienced.

I needed to alter my Google accounts, a separate Google Apps account for my business items, and all of my work related passwords. In addition, I needed to block access from my phone’s IP address to Monsters and Critics completely (parent company to The Tech Herald). This means touching all the servers, relaying the IP address data to the right sections, and then testing them to make sure they are blocked correctly. I did this with the lost phone’s IP block and the IP block from my new phone.

Because of password changes, replacing and restoring my phone, and other related response actions, I lost an entire two days of work. I had to cancel meetings, deal with missed reporting deadlines, story notes, and contacts. This is in addition to the personal loss of pictures and other things.

If you cannot get to an Internet connection to change passwords within the first twenty-four hours of losing the asset, then you’ll have to deal with some increased risk. This can’t be helped. So in the meantime, you need to make a call.

Alert the mobile operator or the business asset manager of the loss

For me, I needed to call Verizon Wireless to report a lost phone. I have the total protection plan, so with a $90.00 co-pay, my Droid Pro could be replaced. I was also able to deactivate the device online, and use a remote wipe feature. The online locator wasn’t all that helpful, and I wasn’t interested in recovering a brick at that point.

If a business owns the lost asset, you need to report it immediately. If the device sees a mix of business and personal use, you still need to report it. Some organizations have an asset manager, but this often falls to the IT department. The asset manager may have an incident response plan that includes remote wipe or tracking. They may also have replacement insurance on their own. Communication is the key, and the faster this happens, the better.

On the personal side of things, if you have the chance to enroll in an insurance plan with your mobile carrier or laptop vendor you should. I was skeptical of those plans for many years, but now that I've needed one, I can say with personal authority there is value in them. They aren’t for everyone, so research them if they are offered, and pick the plan that is right for you.

TL;DR - what’s your point?

I hopped out of a taxi without an asset that connected me to my personal and professional life. A good deal of pain can come from a lost asset. Because I lost my phone, I had to deal with recovery and replacement issues. I lost notes, had to cancel interviews, and missed reporting deadlines. I also lost priceless images of my kids.

Knowing your options can dampen some of the pain felt when an asset is lost, but it will not remove it completely. If you have a cool level head, thinking about what can and what needs to be done, while working through the process step by step, the incident response can be a smooth one. If you panic, you get nothing, aside from more pain and more stress.

As somewhat embarrassing as it is to write this story, I'm doing it to share information. No one is perfect. Asset loss will happen to a business or individual, it just so happens that it was my turn. Once the asset loss has occurred, despite efforts to prevent it in the first place, your response to the problem will make all the difference in the world.

The save for me, was being aware of my options and having a basic plan to work through. Once this was done, I was able to recover by syncing my accounts and data to my new phone and move forward. I’ll just have to take more pictures of the kids and store them somewhere other than my phone from now on.

Feel free to leave comments that build on this list of things to do, or share a good laugh at my epic fail. I’ve earned it I think. If I had been paying attention, the whole mess could have been avoided.

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