Titus Labs helps stop e-mail slips

Message Classification allows data sensitivity labeling to be added to e-mails

The news media is full of stories about e-mails and documents that were better off not sent. Last year an airline CEO accidentally sent an ultra harsh e-mail to complaining customers, the text of which was obviously not intended for the customers. Frustrated employees frequently send embarrassing internal memorandum to public news sources. And is there an e-mail user who hasn't regretted accidentally sending an e-mail to an unintended party? Whether e-mail or documents are sent intentionally or not, it is clear that content intended for a restricted audience is being shared with unauthorized parties on a regular basis.

Titus Labs attempts to address this problem and assist with data classification with their Message Classification and Document Classification for Microsoft Office products. Message Classification works with Microsoft Outlook 2000 and later, and allows data sensitivity labeling to be added to e-mails (including Outlook for Web Access) and calendar events. Each participating client must install a client-side program and configure the operational settings. Configuration settings are generated by a separate administrative program called Message Classification Administration Tool, which can be installed on any Windows-based workstation or server with the Microsoft .Net Framework.

Setup with configuration templates

The Message Classification Administration Tool displays a GUI (see Figure 1) with a series of configuration subcategories, each with about ten different options. After the configuration options are selected, the tool can create two different administrative file types to assist with deployment (an Active Directory group policy administrative template or registry edit file), or simply configure the local machine it is installed on. Installation was easy and straightforward, and documentation was above average, although it lacked necessary detail in some areas.

The resulting registry edit file can be manually edited before installing, and local administrative permissions are needed on each workstation to install. The preferred method for most environments will be the group policy administrative template, which can be applied at any organizational unit or container level, so that different classification policies can apply to different users. The granularity of Message Classification enables a company to have one set of data classification labels for a particular set of users (say the Legal department), and another set of labels (and treatment) for other groups.

The resulting administrative template created by the tool contains more configuration options than were available to configure in the Administration Tool user interface, and each option must be enabled after importing into the appropriate group policy object. Outlook must be restarted after setting the configuration with any method.

Once the settings are configured, when users create an Outlook e-mail, they can add a data classification level label (see Figure 2) to the outgoing message. The default labels are Unclassified, Confidential, and Secret, but any number of labels can be added or deleted, so long as they are ranked from less restrictive to more restrictive (for other features to apply correctly). A second level of labels can be defined so that any level 1 label can be further defined (Unclassified -- Internal use only, Unclassified -- External use allowed, and so forth). Labels can be added to the e-mail subject line (before or after the regular subject text) and/or added to the message's e-mail header and message body.

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Classified company messages

Message classification is configurable as an optional setting or enforced. If labeling is required and the user attempts to send an e-mail without selecting a label, a default label can be applied automatically without any user intervention or the user can be warned or prevented from sending the e-mail until after they have selected a label (see Figure 3). When a user forwards a labeled message and attempts to reclassify it, a warning can be displayed or the message can be prevented from being sent. Labels can also be signed and verified so that subsequent modification results in a denial message. If Titus Labs' Document Classification product is used, Microsoft Office attachments can have their own data classification labels, which interact with the message data classification features in expected ways.

Forcing users to classify each e-mail can help in providing data sensitivity awareness, but Message Classification can also be used to prevent inadvertent sending to unauthorized parties, enable encryption, or provide policy defined archival. At a very basic level, the classification label text can be interrogated by an Outlook rule, which then controls where and from whom the message can be sent. For example, a message labeled CONFIDENTIAL can be restricted to internal readership only and automatically enable S/MIME protections. Similarly, the data classification labels can be acted upon using e-mail server-side programming (such as Microsoft Exchange event sinks or rules), but Message Classification can also interact with more sophisticated protection products such as Microsoft's Rights Management Service (RMS).

Better security, less coding

RMS (available with Windows Server 2003 or 2008) allows e-mails, documents, and other protected content to be restricted to particular users or groups, and each user can be allowed full access, or forbidden to forward, print, or save. Message Classification allows each data classification level to trigger a particular RMS template (which contains predefined rights for particular users and groups). RMS must be purchased and installed separately, and the involved RMS templates must be distributed to each participating client (as is required even without Message Classification installed). In my testing, Message Classification interacted with RMS perfectly. You can accomplish the same results in RMS without the Message Classification product, but it requires a lot more custom coding. Together, the two are a strong combination, and I'm surprised Microsoft hasn't tried to purchase Titus Labs products and add them to their default RMS offering.

If there is a downside to be found it is in the lack of included reporting. Message Classification reporting is limited to writing events to the normal Windows event log, collecting those events into a central repository, and creating custom reports. Events can be written whenever message classification is used, or writing can be limited to more significant events (failed data classification downgrade). It would better if Titus Labs provided its own data collection and reporting tool with multiple predefined reports.

Titus Labs had made a thoughtful product that can only increase the security awareness of data sensitivity when users rely on Microsoft Office products. Titus Labs has a wide list of satisfied customers, both big and small, including Dow Corning, and multiple state and federal government entities. Titus Labs, and other data classification products like it, should be considered by any mid-level or larger company trying to efficiently place the right level of data protection where it is needed. Pricing starts at US$25.00/user with volume discounts available.