The Benefits of Creating a Secure and Portable Personal Digital Ecosystem

*Note: This article was originally published by the author on February 23, 2019.

Credit: bill.com

Four things I am insanely passionate about in life are computers, security, privacy, and the environment. My inner-geek gets super-excited whenever I can find ways to blend all four of them together. As with everything in life, this is about making personal decisions and tradeoffs. I am big on minimalism, organization, optimization, and efficiency in both my personal and professional life. Too often when we read about digital ecosystems, the information covered is geared towards businesses and cost-savings to organizations by going paperless. However, there is much more to digital ecosystems than just going paperless. In this piece, I will make a very strong case for why you may want to consider creating a secure personal digital ecosystem.

A 2014 MultiBriefs study found that U.S. organizations spent $80 annually on paper per employee and 50-to-70% of office space was devoted to filing and storing documentation. Those figures are mind-boggling, even when you run some rough estimations of numbers for just you and your family:

~1-to-5 people x $100/year rounded up for 5 yearsโ€™ worth of inflation= ~$100-to-$500/year potential cost savings. Quantify this further by calculating how many employees your company hasโ€ฆ Mindboggling.

I believe the time has come to seriously consider supplanting our traditional physical ecosystem with a digital ecosystem. Not only is a digital ecosystem better for the natural environment, but it can also translate into huge cost-savings to the individual or organization that adopts a digital-only approach. It baffles me why in 2019 people are still printing emails, charts, and documents like crazy in the workplace and at home when we have laptops, tablets, smartphones, smartwatches, and Internet of Things (IoT) devices coming out of the wazoo! Why? Ask yourself why you really need to print paper anymore? Chances are that you can probably skip printing if you really wanted to unless youโ€™re still stuck in the 1990s with your flip phone.

Credit: Octacom

It often comes down to preference. Many people prefer to have documents and charts printed out so that they can mark them up with red ink, make notes, highlight, etc. Itโ€™s similar to personal preference in terms of eBooks and paperback books. Many people prefer paperbacks to be able to touch pages, dog-ear page corners to denote important information or favorite parts of a novel. Paperbacks and hardbound books offer the ability to write notes, underline and highlight words and sentences. However, all of these things can be done on Adobe files, Microsoft Office/365 files, iWork Suite, and Google Apps. But hey, if you want to keep spending all of that extra money on paper, printers and copier machine maintenance, ink toner cartridges, and paper filing storage cabinets then go right ahead. Meanwhile, Iโ€™ll be over here in my portable digital ecosystem

Digital Ecosystem Security

As opposed to the old lock and key used to protect paper documents in file cabinets or safes, there are many different tools within the digital toolkit that can be employed to secure and protect data. Paper documents are vulnerable to theft, destruction from natural elements such as flooding and fire. In some cases, once a paper copy is gone, itโ€™s gone forever unless you were wise enough to have digitally scanned it or it was printed from a digital file. With digital files, there are layers of information security controls that can be applied to ensure confidentiality, integrity, availability, authentication, non-repudiation, and privacy.

*Digital files can be protected through numerous Identity and Access Management (IAM) security controls.

*Digital files can be tagged with keywords to help categorize and organize files (metadata).

*Digital folders can be access control restricted using Discretionary Access Control (DAC) so that only authorized users are able to access the file contents of a particular folder. Folders can even be password-protected, encrypted, and shared out only to authorized individuals. Tons of different Web-based applications and Cloud-Service Providers (C-SP) offer similar capabilities with their products.

*Digital file version history within the Windows and Mac operating systems enables a user to restore a previous file version (if enabled).

*Digital files are stored on the host system hard drive and can easily be backed up remotely to a Cloud Service Provider (C-SP) to ensure data redundancy in the event of a natural or manmade disaster for a relatively cheap amount.

*Data can also be encrypted to protect the confidentiality and integrity of the information. Encryption of sensitive information containing financial, personally identifiable information (PII), and personal health information (PHI) is critical to maintaining the confidentiality and integrity of data-in-transit and data-at-rest from attackers or general unauthorized disclosure.

*System event logs, when properly enabled, detail when system users create, access, modify, print, and delete files that can be forensically audited if necessary and for which automatic rules and alerts can be established.

*Digital signatures can also be uniquely tied to user accounts using Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) which can then be used to sign digital documents with a uniquely identifiable date/time stamp. There are also several digital signature applications that can be used for this same purpose that doesnโ€™t involve PKI.

*Digital e-payment systems in the workplace using ADP or other similar online financial services are far more secure and cost-effective options for employee access of pay stubs and W-2 tax information than paper mailings.

*Data Loss Prevention (DLP) and port security software can be implemented to protect against sensitive data being sent outside of or illegally exfiltrated from an organizationโ€™s network through email or on USB storage devices or optical media such as CD/DVDs.

*Passwords can and should be stored digitally using a browser-based or local storage drive-based password manager application. LastPass, 1Password, RoboForm, LogMeOnce, BitWarden, and KeePass are a few options to consider. As with all applications, there are going to be vulnerabilities in the software code that can sometimes be exploited. Perfect security is unattainable. As long as you keep your software and browser updated, youโ€™ll be fine. Plus, it is much easier to only have to remember one complex/lengthy master passphrase than 150 different passwords. These password managers will allow users to create really complex and long random unique passwords/passphrases for each website, which letโ€™s be honest, is better than most of us will do when left to our own devices.

Bulletproof Your Most Important Documents & Photos By Digitally Scanning Them Into Cloud-based File Storage

There seems to be a lot of swirl lately around which Cloud-based digital storage platform is the best. There are several options to choose from such as Amazon Web Service, Microsoft OneDrive, Google Drive, and Dropbox to name just a few big tech companies offering Cloud storage services. Of the factors that must be considered in this space, the factors of primary concern are:

1. Cost (could be substantially offset by reduced paper printing, management, ink toner cartridge, and copier machine maintenance costs),

2. Functionality offered (e.g., internal/external sharing capability; time-based folder access)

3. Compliance with laws (e.g., FERPA, HIPAA, GLBA, GDPR, and industry standards such as the PCI-DSS). Most C-SPs are already compliant with these laws or industry standards and are independently audited every so often which is to your benefit as a customer.

4. Security which allows for access control settings, strong file encryption (Dropbox, for instance, offers AES 256-bit block cipher for data-at-rest and AES-128-bit Transport Layer Security encryption of data-in-transit between host systems and the C-SP storage provider), compatibility with multi-factor authentication applications such as Duo, Google Authenticator, Authy; and data redundancy (notice this is a recurring theme here).

Aspects of Your Life That You Can Digitize

Online banking to include Web bill payment checks and depositing checks using your smartphone. You can log into your online banking site to keep an eye on your personal finances and download any pertinent banking statements in .pdf file format to your computer hard drive or directly into your Cloud-based storage.

Pay digitally just about everywhere you go with Google Pay, Samsung Pay, Apple Pay, Venmo, Paypal, etc. Now more than ever it is possible to go completely cashless. You can use a debit or credit card for all of your payments or even pay by phone with one of the apps previously mentioned. So, if you get mugged there is no cash to be had. Better ensure that you have a screen lock set up on your smartphone though as well as the ability to remotely locate and wipe in the event it is stolen.

Photographs and videos are other areas that a lot of people struggle with when it comes to going digital. It would seem like this is a no-brainer area because most people seem to use their smartphone to take digital photographs and videos which are often backed up to Google Photos (Android phones) or the iCloud (iPhones). However, going digital with your photos and videos doesnโ€™t mean you canโ€™t back them up to CDs or DVDs and still maintain print versions to hang in picture frames. Itโ€™s just much easier to organize and ensure the redundancy of your photos if they are stored digitally. Videos are digital by nature, but backing them up to the Cloud ensures that those precious moments captured on video will be around for generations to come regardless of whatever tornado, hurricane, flood, home burglary, wildfire, and may happen. There are also tons of really nifty apps for editing digital photos and videos.

I think itโ€™s safe to say that most people hate meetings. That said, sometimes they are a necessary evil when at work. Are you one of those people who shows up to a meeting with pen and paper? Ok, admittedly sometimes I do this as well, but usually, the pen and paper remain unused and my laptop or smartphone is used for all of my notetaking needs. If thereโ€™s Wi-Fi connectivity, then I am often able to contribute during a meeting by Googling a question or statistic that might have come up in the discussion. I can even record audio the entire meeting as long as I am fair enough to let everyone know itโ€™s being recorded in advance. Itโ€™s far more advantageous to use digital than pen and paper. For the longest time, I used to take written notes and then type them into Microsoft Word or Notepad just to be able to easily copy and paste them into presentations or reports. Why? It is so much easier to just type the notes digitally during a meeting if that is a possibility. Whenever I attend a working group or security conference, I always have my Surface Pro in my backpack ready to whip it out and type notes during a security talk. Evernote is another really good option for digital notetaking.

Productivity and planning apps such as calendars (e.g., Google Calendar, Outlook Calendar), to-do lists (e.g., Trello, Todoist), and other tools like Slack, Hootsuite, Toggl, HelloSign, Zapier, CloudApp help teams collaborate and some of these work well for individuals as well in terms of organization of ideas and project management.

Performing academic research and writing is an important part of my career as an information security professional. Nothing enables my ability to do this more so than a digital ecosystem. As long as I have a laptop with an Internet connection, the sky is the limit. I can research to my heartโ€™s content and write articles using any number of software applications or websites such as Medium. Then I can take it a step further and share content across multiple social networking platforms like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or add it to my blog. Self-published eBooks are now a major industry for those fellow writers out there.

Instead of subscribing to print editions of newspapers, magazines, or paper books, you can get all of it digitally and instead of taking up space in your apartment or house, it will only take up space on your hard drive. Youโ€™ll also have it to refer back to long after those print versions have degenerated to print where the pages stick together and the ink bleeds onto the opposing pages.

Communication is easily done using email, instant messaging, chat rooms, and social media these days. Hardly anyone sends postal letters anymore except credit card companies and spam mailers. The US Postal Service should reduce service to 3 days a week, Mondays/Wednesdays/Fridays to drastically reduce costs. Think about it, unless itโ€™s the holidays and youโ€™re expecting gifts to show up at your doorstep or youโ€™ve ordered something online from Amazon, Target, or some other online retailer that is due to be delivered via UPS, FedEx, or DHL, are you really that excited to check your mailbox?

Your health and fitness is another area for which there seems to be an unending supply of applications available to help keep track of your health and fitness goals, measurements, miles logged, etc.

Portability is an immensely important factor to also consider. How feasible is it for you to be able to pick up and go in an emergency situation such as wildfire or mudslide as we often see in the Southern California region? Wouldnโ€™t you feel better knowing that all of your important documents such as birth certificates, social security cards, drivers licenses, marriage license, court documents such as a divorce decree, immunization records, scans of all of the credit cards (front/back) in your wallet, and financial statements are automatically backed up to the Cloud on a daily basis? To me, that makes it easier knowing that if I have to pick up and go at a momentโ€™s notice, that all of those important things are safely stored away from my physical location. Privacy of my data is certainly very important to me as well which is why I make a habit of encrypting all of my files locally on my computer HDD before uploading them to the Cloud. This way, should I want to I can also delete those files forever and make them inaccessible to anyone simply by deleting the decryption key, a technique known as cryptographic erasure.

Some can fit every digital file they own their smartphone SD card or a USB stick. Howโ€™s that for portability?

Summary

As we look toward the future, a digital ecosystem ought to be central to our thought processes for building a sustainable future. Sure, technology devices use natural resources but if weโ€™re careful about how we design and use them, they long outlast paper products and save a lot of resources and cost in the long run. We cannot continue to plunder Earthโ€™s natural resources in the manner we have for so long and expect there not to be severe negative impacts on the global climate and species. All of this product packaging that comes in packages nowadays is ridiculous. As consumers, we need to demand biodegradable packaging and less of it from manufacturers.

This is a small decision, something that you can do for yourself right now with minimal cost. Get a scanner, start in small chunks. You can thank me later. The investments you make personally to establish your own digital ecosystem will pay huge dividends later on down the road so long as you continue to organize and ensure your data is backed up. Small movements like this tend to grow externally outward and can have huge global impacts if enough people hop on the bandwagon. That would be great for the global environment as well, but I am not so naive to believe that digital ecosystems will completely supplant traditional paper systems. Many peopleโ€™s jobs rely on paper (media, loggers, publishing companies, etc.). Think of being able to pass on your loved ones all of your digital photos, videos, or other files for them to enjoy long after you are gone. What will you use the money you saved by going paperless for?

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