- The Washington Times - Monday, March 27, 2006

The United States’ 23 million small businesses are vulnerable to data security breaches, but free online tutorials are now available to help them.

The Council of Better Business Bureaus Inc. yesterday announced a national education initiative to help small-business owners improve their data security and privacy readiness.

“Security & Privacy — Made Simpler” (www.bbb.org/securityandprivacy) includes free security and privacy tool kits with brochures focused on customer and employee data protection. The customer data kit was released yesterday, and the employee version will be released in the fall, said Steve Cole, president and chief executive officer of the Council of Better Business Bureaus in Arlington.

A 2005 survey by the Small Business Technology Institute found that more than half of all small businesses had a security breach in the past year, and that two-thirds did not have an information security plan.

Safeguards should be installed in both cyberspace and physical locales, but many small businesses do one and not the other, said Lance Hoffman, research professor in George Washington University’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, who consulted on the project. Digital tools such as fire walls are just as important as ensuring that cabinets containing sensitive files are locked.

“Taking precautions doesn’t have to be complicated,” Mr. Cole said.

Paper versions of the tool kits are being distributed through the 116 local Better Business Bureaus (BBB) nationwide, and corporate sponsors are distributing them to their small-business customers. The program was developed with Hackensack, N.J.-based Privacy & American Business, a part of the nonprofit Center for Social & Legal Research.

“The goal is to have small businesses apply standards that are reasonable in light of the information they are storing,” said Lydia Parnes, director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, which this year has levied record fines against large businesses that neglected to properly secure consumer information.

If they don’t secure customer data, small-business owners also could be subject to government sanctions. No business would leave cash out on a table, and “information on customers is the new currency … [they] need to take steps to protect that information, as well,” Ms. Parnes said.

Government officials from the FBI and the U.S. Secret Service earlier this month joined Ms. Parnes in testifying before a House Small Business subcommittee about the importance of small businesses’ securing their data.

The Small Business Administration (SBA) declined an invitation to testify at the hearing, but Ellen Thrasher, associate administrator of SBA’s Office of Business and Community Initiatives, told lawmakers about the agency’s efforts to educate entrepreneurs about incorporating information-technology security into their business plans via online publications and resources.

The BBB initiative came together in the past four months, and the BBB is “ready, willing and able” to partner with the SBA, Mr. Cole said.

The SBA does not have an official alliance with the BBB, and an agency spokeswoman yesterday said none was in the works.

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