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Morgan Stanley fined millions for selling off devices full of customer PII

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Morgan Stanley, which bills itself in its website title tag as the “global leader in financial services”, and states in the opening sentence of its main page that “clients come first”, has been fined $35,000,000 by the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)…

…for selling off old hardware devices online, including thousands of disk drives, that were still loaded with personally identifiable information (PII) belonging to its clients.

Strictly speaking, it’s not a criminal conviction, so the penalty isn’t technically a fine, but it’s “not a fine” in much the same sort of way that car owners in England no longer get parking fines, but officially pay penalty charge notices instead.

Also, strictly speaking, Morgan Stanley didn’t directly sell off the offending devices itself.

But the company contracted someone else to do the work of wiping-and-selling-off the superannuated equipment, and then didn’t bother to keep its eye on the process to ensure that it was done properly.

The full story

The SEC’s official document on the matter, Administrative Proceeding File Number 3-21112, actually makes really useful reading for anyone in SecOps or cybersecurity.

At 11 pages, it’s not too long to read in full, and the story it tells is a fascinating one, revealing numerous twists and turns, unauthorised switches in subcontractors, lack of oversight and follow-up, and reckless shortcuts.

If you have anything to do with the secure disposal of redundant equipment, be sure to read the SEC’s final document, and make sure that your own policies and procedures take into account the failings described in the report.

Notably, ensure that you have done, are doing, and will do a better job than Morgan Stanley with:

  • The equipment retirement and data destruction policies you adopt up front.
  • The way you choose your data-destruction contractors for old devices.
  • The procedures you follow to keep tabs on progress.

As you will see from the SEC’s tales of woeful wilfulness (the second word is one that the SEC uses officially and formally in respect of Morgan Stanley), there’s an awful lot that can go wrong when you are getting rid of old IT kit.

Nevertheless, the main points of the story are simply told in the SEC’s summary, namely that Morgan Stanley, via a contractor:

  • Sold approximately 4,900 information technology assets containing client PII, many of which still had that PII on them when they reached their new owners.
  • Decommissioned 500 network caching devices containing client PII that were at best partially encrypted, of which 42 were unaccounted for after their alleged “disposal”.

Dirty deeds and they’re done dirt cheap

In the first case, dating back to 2016, it seems that the contractor chosen by Morgan Stanley, perhaps realising that the company wasn’t checking up on how faithfully the wiping-and-selling-on process was being followed, decided to switch to a new (and unapproved) subcontractor who apparently skipped the “wipe it first” part, and directly put the retired devices up for sale on an on-line auction site.

Someone in Oklahoma bought a few of the old drives, presumably as hot spares for their own IT operation, and realised that they were still full of Morgan Stanley client data.

According to the SEC, the purchaser contacted Morgan Stanley and said, “[y]ou are a major financial institution and should be following some very stringent guidelines on how to deal with retiring hardware. Or at the very least getting some kind of verification of data destruction from the vendors you sell equipment to.”

Morgan Stanley ultimately bought back those drives, but that didn’t deal with any of the other disks that had been sold on elsewhere.

Indeed, the SEC notes that 14 more data-tainted disks were bought back from someone else by Morgan Stanley as recently as June 2021, still unwiped, still working fine, and still containing “at least 140,000 pieces of customer PII”.

As the SEC wryly notes, “the vast majority of the hard drives from the 2016 Data Center Decommissioning remain missing.”

We are certain that we may have encrypted something

In the second case, the retired devices were WAN (wide area network) caching servers used by branch offices to optimise internet bandwidth in order to accelerate access to common documents.

Ironically, these devices had an encrypt-any-stored-data-packets option that would have simplified decommissioning greatly.

After all, if you can show that you turned the encryption option on, and that you wiped all known copies of the decryption key, then data protection regulators in many countries will treat the encrypted data as wiped, too.

Data that’s considered undecryptable is no more meaningful than digital shredded cabbage.

But Morgan Stanley apparently didn’t activate the decryption option until at least one year after the devices went into use…

…and the encryption only applied to new data subsequently written to the device, not to anything that was there before.

So all that Morgan Stanley can “prove”, for the 42 devices that are still out there somewhere, is that each device almost certainly contains at least some client PII that definitely isn’t encrypted.

What to do?

  • You can outsource your cybersecurity, but you can’t outsource your responsibility. Make sure that you comply with data protection regulations by keeping track of how your contractors are complying with them, too. Part of the SEC’s complaint against Morgan Stanley is that it should have been obvious that that their chosen operator had deviated from the official plan, and thus that the company could easily have avoided becoming non-compliant and putting their clients at risk.
  • Full-device encryption can help you comply with data protection rules. Properly-scrambled data without the decryption key is effectively just random noise, so many data protection regulators treat “undecryptable” disks as if they’d been wiped, or never contained any data at all. But you need to be able to show both that you activated the encryption correctly in the first place, and that anyone who acquires the disk in future will be unable to acquire the decryption key.
  • If in doubt, go for device destruction, not for wiping-and-selling-on. There are sound environmental reasons for not blindly destroying and recycling every computing device that you retire from service, but there are diminishing returns from reusing old kit. Even large devices can be physically “shredded”, leaving their metals open to recovery but not their data. If you can’t usefully reuse it, don’t bother selling it on to someone else who might not ultimately dispose of it as soundly as you. Dispose of it responsibly yourself.
  • Mishandled PII can show up years after you lost it. Unlike garden waste in the compost bin or old bicycles dumped in the canal, misplaced data storage devices can show up in perfect working order, with all their original data intact, for years after you might have assumed they were lost without trace, or degraded beyond repair.

We can’t resist ending with the rhyme we often use to warn people about the risks of oversharing on social media, because it applies equally well to data stored by the biggest IT department.

If in doubt / Don’t give it out.


WATCH THE SPARKS FLY – A DISK SHREDDER IN ACTION

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(Watch directly on YouTube if the video won’t play here.)


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  • Source: https://nakedsecurity.sophos.com/2022/09/23/morgan-stanley-fined-millions-for-selling-off-devices-full-of-customer-pii/

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