In the digital landscape, outsiders aren't just trying to listen in on your data; they're actively attempting to harvest it anytime it’s sent out. And this goes beyond the run-of-the-mill hackers and malicious actors. Government agencies, major private tech companies like Apple, and even nation-state actors — as seen in the allegations against TikTok for in-app browser data harvesting on behalf of China — are all part of this sweeping collection effort. 

Put simply, the threat is real, and it's time to understand how deep it goes. To help with that, here are some tips for implementing a zero-clear mindset.

What Is Zero Clear?

The risks of data-gathering efforts are profound. It's not just about personal privacy. Data gathering represents a grave security concern that could expose sensitive financial data, personal habits, and business secrets. 

In the modern world, it is not unreasonable to assume every piece of data relating to you or your business that exists in the clear - that is, without encryption - is being harvested, stored, and made available on the Dark Web.  

Each individual piece of information collected may seem innocuous on its own. However, when pieced together, it can create an alarmingly accurate picture of individuals' and organizations’ preferences, behaviors, beliefs, and patterns - especially when aggregated over a long period of time.

Who can predict which things that are acceptable now will become objectionable, assailable, or “cancellable” in the near or distant future? Wouldn’t it be wise to reduce or eliminate the number of things out there in order to reduce this risk?

Zero Clear is an organizational and personal commitment and initiative to ensure that data is only visible to authorized users and no one else, be they well-intentioned or malicious. 

Zero Clear looks at data like water, existing in three states:  

  1.  Data in motion
  2.  Data at rest
  3.  Data in use

Each state represents a possible vulnerability that could be exploited. That's where Zero Clear comes into play, with its core principle to encrypt data wherever it exists. By doing so, it safeguards not just today's digital communication, information, and transactions but sets a protective standard for the future as well.

Encrypt Everything: The Simple and Complex

Data encryption is a relatively straightforward task for objects like hard drives, thumb drives, laptops, and cell phones. Often, all that’s needed is a FIPS encrypted thumb drive or even a secure database. 

But when we say encrypt everything, we mean every single thing. And here’s where the data security waters can get murky. 

Technologies such as Voice over IP (VoIP) and telephone conversations present the real challenges. These are usually sent in the clear, meaning they’re unencrypted and potentially accessible to those who know how to listen in. 

This isn't a niche vulnerability; it's a gaping hole in our daily communication. It can expose personal, financial, or even medical information that could then be leveraged against the person at some point down the road.

Fortunately, there are encryption tools and apps that can address this often-overlooked security gap. For instance, Signal Messenger is an open-source messaging app that provides end-to-end encryption for all its communications, including text messages, voice calls, video calls, and file sharing.

This Isn’t Just a Big Company Problem

Cyber attacks and data risks are skyrocketing. IBM’s 2022 Data Breach Report revealed that 83% of organizations experienced more than one data breach last year. And the average cost of a breach was more than $4 million. 

Naturally, one might assume only large corporations would be attractive targets for cyber attackers or data harvesters. But the reality is it’s not a problem exclusively for big companies. Nearly half of all cyber breaches targeted businesses with fewer than 1,000 employees. And unfortunately, 60% of small companies close within six months of being hacked, seeing as they lack the resources to overcome an attack.

What makes them such rich targets? Four common problems crop up: 

  1.  Complacency and a lax security posture: They don’t take threats seriously. And the belief that "it won't happen to me" can lead to a careless approach to security.
  2.  Limited resources: They often operate with limited budgets, leading to underinvestment in robust security measures.
  3.  Lack of awareness: Many small businesses are unaware of the potential risks and, therefore, don't prioritize cybersecurity.
  4.  Reliance on basic measures: Without proper investment in specialized security tools, smaller companies may rely on basic procedures that are easily penetrable by sophisticated attackers.

For instance, let’s say you provide services to the government and regularly communicate data. Who would be easier for malicious actors to target: the party with a multimillion-dollar security infrastructure or a small business with limited protection?

Who Are the Data Harvesters?

Do you think your data isn't valuable or interesting? Think again. You don't have to be a secret agent or a top CEO to have your data harvested. In today's world, everyone is a potential target.

But who’s doing the data harvesting, and why are they after it?

  • Nation-state actors: Intelligence gathering, psychological operations (psyops), economic manipulation, espionage. Whether ally or enemy, all nations have vested interests in harvesting data.
  • Big tech: Advertising, product development, user behavior analysis. Companies like Amazon, Google, and Microsoft leverage your data to make money, innovate, and better understand consumer preferences and behavior.
  • The American government: National security, law enforcement, public policy. It's not always malicious, but it's most definitely meticulous and invasive.
  • Malicious actors: Identity theft, corporate sabotage, blackmail, political subversion. The motives here are as varied as they are nefarious.

With so many parties actively hunting for your data, encrypting everything is a wise defensive posture in a world where the offense never comes off the field.

How to Protect Your Products

When it comes to the idea behind zero clear encryption, manufacturers can’t overlook the importance of protecting their products. To that end, keep these tips in mind: 

  • Embed a security architect early: Right from the product's inception, having a security architect in place helps intercept potential problems.
  • Understand data sensitivity: Know what data is stored, how it's transmitted, and its sensitivity level. Consider the risks involved with your product, such as hacking vulnerabilities. 
  • Be aware of downstream risks: Consider what your tool or application could be used for if someone were to make a backdoor into it or install spyware. Awareness of these possibilities helps in early prevention.
  • Implement comprehensive reviews: This includes static code review, component review, and runtime review, all of which provide insight into what the software is doing. 

Finally, as we’ve emphasized throughout this conversation, encrypt everything.

Implementing a Zero Clear Approach with CMTC

In a world where digital information is constantly at risk, the concept of Zero Clear highlights the need to encrypt all your data, whether it’s at rest, in use, or in motion. From personal privacy to organizational security, understanding this approach and the potential threat vectors is vital. 

Despite these pressing concerns, the good news is that small and medium-sized manufacturers don't have to face these cyber threats alone. At CMTC, we can partner with you to map out and assess potential threats and pathways to secure your digital infrastructure. 

Protecting your data isn't just a choice; it's a necessity. Act now to secure your digital future.

About the Author

Gregg Profozich

Gregg Profozich is a manufacturing, operations and technology executive who believes that manufacturing is the key creator of wealth in the economy and that a strong manufacturing sector is critical to our nation’s prosperity and security now, and for future generations. Across his 20-year plus career in manufacturing, operations and technology consulting, Mr. Profozich helped manufacturing companies from the Fortune 500 to the small, independents significantly improve their productivity and competitiveness.

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