A bank employee accesses her neighbor’s accounts on-line and discloses this information to another person living in the neighborhood; soon everyone seems to be talking about the neighbor’s financial situation. An employee of a mutual fund company accesses his father-in-law’s accounts without a legitimate reason or permission from the unsuspecting relative and uses the information to pressure his wife into making a bad investment from which the father-in-law, using money from the fund account, ultimately pays to extricate his daughter. Initially, out of curiosity, an employee at a local hospital accesses admission records of a high-profile athlete whom he recognized in the emergency room but then shares that information (for a price) with a tabloid newspaper reporter who prints a story.
Each of these is an actual case and each is a serious violation of various Federal privacy laws. Each of these three scenarios were not the work of an anonymous intruder lurking in cyberspace or of an identity thief who compromised a data center. Rather, this database browsing was perpetrated by a trusted insider, an employee whose daily duties required them to have access to vast databases housing financial, medical and educational information. From the comfort and anonymity of their workstations, similar employees are increasingly capable of accessing personal information for non-business reasons and, sometimes, to support the accomplishment of actual frauds. The good news is that CFE’s can help with targeted fraud risk assessments specifically tailored to assess the probability of this threat type and then to advise management on an approach to its mitigation.
The Committee of Sponsoring Organizations of the Treadway Commission’s (COSO’s) 2013 update of the Internal Control Integrated Framework directs organizations to conduct a fraud risk assessment as part of their overall risk assessment. The discussion of fraud in COSO 2013 centers on Principle 8: “The organization considers the potential for fraud in assessing risks to the achievement of objectives.” Under the 1992 COSO framework, most organizations viewed fraud risk primarily in terms of satisfying the U.S. Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 requirements to identify fraud controls to prevent or detect fraud risk at the transaction level. In COSO 2013, fraud risk becomes a specific component of the overall risk assessment that focuses on fraud at the entity and transaction levels. COSO now requires a strong internal control foundation that addresses fraud broadly to encompass company objectives as part of its strategy, operations, compliance, and reporting. Principle 8 describes four specific areas: fraudulent financial reporting, fraudulent nonfinancial reporting, misappropriation of assets, and illegal acts. The inclusion of non-financial reporting is a meaningful change that addresses sustainability, health and safety, employment activity and similar reports.
One useful document for performing a fraud risk assessment is Managing the Business Risk of Fraud: A Practical Guide, produced by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, and by our organization, the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, as well as by the Institute of Internal Auditors. This guide to establishing a fraud risk management program includes a sample fraud policy document, fraud prevention scorecard, and lists of fraud exposures and controls. Managing the Business Risk of Fraud advises organizations to view fraud risk assessment as part of their corporate governance effort. This commitment requires a tone at the top that embraces strong governance practices, including written policies that describe the expectations of the board and senior management regarding fraud risk. The Guide points out that as organizations continue to automate key processes and implement technology, thus allowing employees broad access to sensitive data, misuse of that data becomes increasingly difficult to detect and prevent. By combining aggressive data collection strategies with innovative technology, public and private sector organizations have enjoyed dramatic improvements in productivity and service delivery that have contributed to their bottom line. Unfortunately, while these practices have yielded major societal benefits, they have also created a major challenge for those charged with protecting confidential data.
CFE’s proactively assessing client organizations which use substantial amounts of private customer information (PCI) for fraud risk should expect to see the presence of controls related to data access surveillance. Data surveillance is the systematic monitoring of information maintained in an automated, usually in a database, environment. The kinds of controls CFE’s should look for are the presence of a privacy strategy that combines the establishment of a comprehensive policy, an awareness program that reinforces the consequences of non-business accesses, a monitoring tool that provides for ongoing analysis of database activity, an investigative function to resolve suspect accesses and a disciplinary component to hold violators accountable.
The creation of an enterprise confidentiality policy on the front end of the implementation of a data surveillance program is essential to its success. An implementing organization should establish a data access policy that clearly explains the relevant prohibitions, provides examples of prohibited activity and details the consequences of non-business accesses. This policy must apply to all employees, regardless of their title, seniority or function. The AICP/ACFE Guide recommends that all employees, beginning with the CEO, be required to sign an annual acknowledgment affirming that they have received and read the confidentiality policy and understand that violations will result in the imposition of disciplinary action. No employees are granted access to any system housing confidential data until they have first signed the acknowledgment.
In addition to issuing a policy, it is imperative that organizations formally train employees regarding its various provisions and caution them on the consequences of accessing data for non-business purposes. During the orientation process for new hires, all employees should receive specialized training on the confidentiality policy. As an added reminder, prior to logging on to any database that contains personal information, employees should receive an electronic notice stating that their activities are being monitored and that all accesses must be related to an official business purpose. Employees are not granted access into the system until they electronically acknowledge this notice.
Given that data surveillance is a process of ongoing monitoring of database activity, it is necessary for individual accesses to be captured and maintained in a format conducive to analysis. There are many commercially available software tools which can be used to monitor access to relational databases on a real-time basis. Transaction tracking technology, as one example, can dynamically generate Structured Query Language (SQL), based upon various search criteria, and provides the capability for customized analyses within each application housing confidential data. The search results are available in Microsoft Excel, PDF and table formats, and may be printed, e-mailed and archived.
Our CFE client organizations that establish a data access policy and formally notify all employees of the provisions of that policy, institute an ongoing awareness program to reinforce the policy and implement technology to track individual accesses of confidential data have taken the initial steps toward safeguarding data. These are necessary components of a data surveillance program and serve as the foundation upon which the remainder of the process may be based. That said, it is critical that organizations not rely solely on these components, as doing so will result in an unwarranted sense of security. Without an ongoing monitoring process to detect questionable database activity and a comprehensive investigative function to address unauthorized accesses, the impact of the foregoing measures will be marginal.
The final piece of a data surveillance program is the disciplinary process. The ACFE tells us that employees who willfully violate the policy prohibiting nonbusiness access of confidential information must be disciplined; the exact nature of which discipline should be determined by executive management. Without a structured disciplinary process, employees will realize that their database browsing, even if detected, will not result in any consequence and, therefore, they will not be deterred from this type of misconduct. Without an effective disciplinary component, an organization’s privacy protection program will ultimately fail.
The bottom line is that our client organizations that maintain confidential data need to develop measures to protect this asset from internal as well as from external misuse, without imposing barriers that restrict their employees’ ability to perform their duties. In today’s environment, those who are perceived as being unable to protect the sensitive data entrusted to them will inevitably experience an erosion of consumer confidence, and the accompanying consequences. Data surveillance deployed in conjunction with a clear data access policy, an ongoing employee awareness program, an innovative monitoring process, an effective investigative function and a standardized disciplinary procedure are the component controls the CFE should look for when conducting a proactive fraud risk assessment of employee access to PCI.