Stay connected

We’d love to send you our monthly newsletter!

Data security can be crucial and complicated
September 25, 2023   |  Articles

Security Will Get Personal (Ch 3 Excerpt)

Excerpt from Generation Innovation by Lisa Leveseque and Belle Walker, available November 9, 2023

“So how did the controlled alpha test go?” Nancy rarely saw Kate in person between their weekly dinners, but she had been unable to resist dropping by Kate’s apartment on Thursday evening with a bag of take-out and a mountain of questions.

Out of the corner of her eye, Nancy noticed Jenny rolling her eyes at the naming convention and reflected again on how much she liked her daughter’s girlfriend. She had seen far too little of Jenny recently and was just starting to wonder if Jenny was seeing enough of Kate when the subject of her rumination interrupted her train of thought.

“Thank you, Mom,” Kate said as she took the bag and placed it on the counter in her apartment, “but I can’t talk right now. I’m home, Sally is moved, but I have a lot more to do before there will be any celebration.”

She paused, considering how much she wanted to divulge just now.

“There was some sort of issue with the service that hosts our app today, and we’re still learning all the details. It sounds like there was a security breach, so the provider shut down all access to the system until they had the breach back under control. As far as we can tell, the outage overlapped with at least part of the actual move, so Sally and the MoveMob were unable to use the app quite as planned. I’m pretty stressed out about the implications!”

Nancy, who never enjoyed seeing her daughter stressed, tried to focus on the glimmers of good news she had heard during the summary. “But it sounds like the test itself was a success. Sally is all moved, everyone got paid, and hopefully now you’ll have an easier time raising money to get you to a city-wide launch.”

Kate’s face had crumpled when Nancy mentioned payments.

“What is it honey?” Nancy asked. Kate had been so excited to prove her concept and show that the app would work, Nancy was struggling to understand why an outage caused so much stress when everything seemed to have worked so smoothly.

“Oh Mom, I think we really messed up. I’m worried that we will never get any funding now!” and with that, she broke down into tears.

Nancy grabbed her daughter into a fierce hug and brought her over to the couch. While Kate focused on pulling herself together, Jenny brought her a glass of water and then settled in on Kate’s other side to be there for the rest of the story, whenever Kate was ready.

While Kate continued to take small sips of water and regain her composure, Jenny looked over at Nancy, “We’ve only both been home for a few minutes, and I haven’t gotten the full story yet either.”

“Okay, I think I’m all right now.” Kate took a few more deep breaths and then launched into the details of her incredibly stressful day. “Everything started out great. Sally listed her move and the MoveMob was ready and waiting. As soon as the move popped up, Sean signed up to provide the truck and the other three signed up to assist with the move. Matt said that he needed a ride, and the app was able to determine that John was in the best position to pick him up on the way to Sally’s place.”

These names meant nothing to Nancy, but she doubted that they would be relevant once they got to the heart of what was upsetting Kate and Jenny was nodding along so at least one person was following the details.

“The way the app is configured, Sally had to enter her credit card information to guarantee the move. She wouldn’t be charged until the Mob arrived, and then the charges are paid in stages throughout the day. Her card was charged when the Mob arrived at her old apartment for the nonrefundable minimum that’s guaranteed once the Mob confirms that they’re on site. Then the Mob started moving boxes into the van, taking pictures of boxes and furniture inside the apartment and then again when it got into the truck. We built in a whole inventory feature that we hope will let us use machine learning in the future to automatically confirm that every item you see in the apartment makes it onto the trucks and then into the new location.

“They were about halfway through loading when they started getting error messages for the photo uploads and called me. I called Sanjay and he told me that the hosting service was down indefinitely. I had the Mob save the pictures to their phones, and then when the service was back up a few hours later, they were able to upload the photos then.

“Fortunately, Sally was moving from a studio apartment and she doesn’t have a lot of stuff so the move took a few hours and was done long before dinner. The app service was back up by the time they were done, and the final payments were processed without any issues. I checked our dashboard, saw that we had money headed our way and Face Timed Sanjay so that we could celebrate!”

“So far it sounds amazing,” Nancy said encouragingly.

Ignoring the interruption, Kate continued, “When he answered, he was as pale as a ghost. I swear that it felt like I could almost see right through him. That’s when he told me how badly we messed up!”

Kate fell silent again, and Nancy was more confused than ever. For such a complex service, having their first test go so smoothly all things considered truly should have been cause for celebration. Maybe they were worried that the test case had been too simple or too contrived, or something? Nancy could read the exact same confusion on Jenny’s face, but they both silently waited a few more moments to see if Kate would pick the story back up and were rewarded for their silence.

“He told me that the platform had been shut down because of a security breach, and that they sent a notification that if anyone had unsecured PII, they needed to notify their own customers immediately. That’s when we realized that we had been storing all of Sally’s address information in plain text!”

Nancy was unsure what “PII” stood for but as soon as Kate mentioned the word address, she realized that it had to have something to do with personal information and that reminded her of a recent article she had read about personal identifying information.

“Plus, all of the photos are geotagged. So now, whoever broke into the platform knows where Sally used to live and where she’s moving to and can see pictures of all of her furniture. Everything she owns is in those photos, and even if most of it’s in boxes, there are boxes that are labeled ‘jewelry’ and stuff like that. If we had had a complete database of information, we could have basically been providing a roadmap to a burglary ring!”

At this point, Nancy felt like it was time to jump in and try to put things into perspective. 

“Oh honey, I see why you’re so upset. That would have been terrible. But isn’t it a good thing that you had this scare so early in the development process? Now all you have to do is notify Sally of the issue and then you can make all the changes you need to secure data for the future.”

“It’s not that simple, Mom. First, Sally is one of my best friends. How can I possibly tell her that I’ve betrayed her trust so completely? And reworking the app to better protect information is going to be a nightmare. This is going to set us back weeks or maybe even months. Sanjay and I’ve been frantically reading up on anything we can find and we’re realizing that security is something you have to build in from the ground up. The only reason Sally’s credit card information is still safe is because we ran out of time and used a third-party provider that handles all the security details around the payment. Everything else is our code, and now we have to figure out how we’re going to gather the information we need and the information we want and use it to build the product we always dreamed of without compromising our customer’s privacy. This is going to be so hard!”

Now it was Jenny’s turn to jump into the conversation, “So hard is a far cry from impossible, Kate. And, like you said, Sally is one of your best friends. She’s also quite tech savvy herself, so I’m sure she realized that using a brand-new app had some risks. You never tried to tell her that the app was more mature than it was and as long as you’re up front with her about what happened, I’m sure she will understand and forgive you. If there is anything to forgive, really.”

Everyone was silent for a long moment when Nancy spoke up, asking, “Do you know if Sally’s new apartment has an alarm system?”

Kate looked up, curious, “No, I don’t know. Why?”

“Well, I was thinking that maybe you could offer to pay for a few months of the alarm monitoring service if she did. That could be a good way to really demonstrate that you take her privacy and safety seriously.”

“That’s a great idea, Mom, I’ll ask her!”

“And I know that this is going to be painful, but aren’t you the one who is always telling me about how great it is to fail in Silicon Valley? This seems like the best of both worlds. You had some great successes today, and you also had some humbling failures that you can learn from and use to make MoveMobile even better.”

Kate sniffed a bit at that but didn’t argue, which Nancy took as a good sign.

“Thanks, Mom. And thanks for the food. I’m starving. But I really need to call Sally and start thinking about how we’re going to update our pitch to the WPI angel investors group next week. This still feels like a terrible day, but you’re right that there may be some opportunities here we can leverage. After I talk to Sally.”

Kate wandered off down the hall so Nancy said her goodbyes to Jenny and headed back down to her car. She was halfway home before she realized that Kate had managed to keep the entire bag of take out. She hoped that Kate remembered to share with Jenny!

Stay connected

Updates, insights into our perspective, and highlights from our work!