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Larger than expected numbers of employees are copying sensitive company data to unsecured flash drives, often without the knowledge or authorization of their corporate IT departments. According to research from Milpitas, CA-based SanDisk Corp., 77% of the employees surveyed use flash drives to store work-related data, including financial information, business plans, intellectual property and source code.

That’s more than double the 35% corporate IT respondents estimated, the flash drive manufacturer reports. The USB or Universal Serial Bus standard has been around about 13 years. But thanks to improved technology, there’s been explosive growth in the use of USB flash drives. However, because USB flash drives are portable and easy to lose, they create significant data loss risks and potentially serious security threats.

Gil Mildworth, senior director of marketing for SanDisk’s enterprise division, notes that data leaks can result in identity theft, loss of trade secrets and financial damage to organizations. “Corporate IT execs need more effective policies, education and technology solutions to mitigate the risks. Only a top-down effort involving intelligent device management, data monitoring and centralized policy enforcement will sufficiently reduce risks, while allowing organizations to reap the productivity benefits of enhanced mobility,” he says.

But as many as one out of every five employees have little to no awareness about the risks of transporting corporate data on flash drives. And many businesses, including commercial real estate firms, underestimate the risks of USB devices.

Just recently, in interviews with GlobeSt.com, CIOs at two of the largest real estate firms downplayed the dangers of flash drives. Don Goldstein, chief information officer for CB Richard Ellis, said, “Flash drives are not a big deal because they don’t require special software.” David A. Johnson, chief information officer at Jones Lang LaSalle, said the company allows employees in most locations worldwide to use USB devices because “we want to make the technology friendly.”

Such permissiveness may backfire, SanDisk reports. Employees are copying sensitive data to flash drive, it warns, including customer records (25 %), financial information (17 %), business plans (15 %), employee records (13 %), marketing plans (13 %), intellectual property (6 %), and source code (6 %).

More than one in 10 employees have found a flash drive in a public place. When asked what they’d do if they found a flash drive, 55% of those surveyed admit they’d view the data.

For some employees, the convenience and portability of flash drives supersedes their concerns about company policy. About 23% are either aware of their company’s flash drive use policy or never bothered to learn the details.

Another 40% say their company bans copying corporate data to personal flash drives. But because 77% of those surveyed are using the portable drives, at least some employees are ignoring company policy.

Besides data loss, personal USB flash drives are problematic for another reason. Users can unintentionally pass viruses to their computers when they connect the devices to their computers, industry experts say.

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