At Liquid Machines, a Harvard Dean’s Invention Plugs Document Leaks

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into a computer’s active memory. Once the Liquid Machines software has taken over the program, it gives it the ability to decipher specially encrypted files on the fly. It holds the decrypted version in memory, and can send the information to a printer or a display, where the end user can read it.

Because the Liquid Machines system intercepts and controls all of the information passing into and out of the original application, it can prevent that information from going anywhere else without first being re-encrypted. For example, a user of a protected Word document could copy and paste information from that document into a non-protected one—but the second document would then automatically be saved in encrypted form.

Not only does this approach to document protection prevent unauthorized access—the goal of all digital-rights management technology—but it has the huge advantage of being portable and independent of the applications that handle specific types of content. In a company with Liquid Machines software, in other words, employees don’t need special, secure versions of Word or Outlook or Acrobat or Visio or SolidWorks or any of the other software they use to generate and exchange knowledge. They just need the Liquid Machines application installed on their computer or handheld device (it also works on the RIM Blackberry, in addition to Windows desktops and laptops).

“Most security technology forces people to change they way they do their work, which is a bad thing, because it inhibits productivity,” says Ruffolo. “Having been a CIO, I know it’s difficult even to get people to change their passwords, let alone upgrade every application they use so that it’s secure. We have really solved the ease-of-use problem for customers who want to promote security but not reduce productivity.”

Organizations like Goldman Sachs, Philip Morris, Symantec, Dow Chemical, and the United States Marine Corps have adopted Liquid Machines’ software to control internal documents and prevent accidental (or intentional) breaches. Typically, Ruffolo says, a company will run a small pilot test within a single department, then scale up to multiple departments—and then, in a growing number of cases, licensing the product for use across the entire company, as Goldman Sachs has done, buying seat licenses for 42,000 employees.

Companies appreciate Liquid Machines’ technology, Ruffolo says, because it doesn’t interfere with employees’ everyday work. In fact, with application injection, a user of Microsoft Word or Adobe Acrobat would normally never notice that Liquid Machines’ software has stepped in to oversee the flow of information inside the computer (except for the special control panel called the “policy droplet” that lets the creator of a document specify who is authorized to access it).

“We think our technology is going to become like car seats—just a common-sense way to protect information that needs to be protected,” says Ruffolo. “It’s ironic, but law firms tend to be the slowest to adopt document protection technology. They hide behind the disclaimers at the bottom of their email. It’s their clients”—including, perhaps, a red-faced and incensed Eli Lilly—“that are forcing them to act.”

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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3 responses to “At Liquid Machines, a Harvard Dean’s Invention Plugs Document Leaks”

  1. Don says:

    Liquid Machines is hardly a unique ERM solution – there are several other startups such as Authentica, SealedMedia and InstaSecure offering similar capabilities at a much lower price point and with stronger leakage prevention features…for instance, Liquid Machines has no capability to block screen capture software where as all of the above provide this security aspect as well. Also, the “injection” method that Liquid Machines uses can easily be cracked by any other plug-in that is also injected at the same time into the native application…

  2. Kevin says:

    All the encryption in the world won’t help drug companies hide their lies. There will be honest researchers who will expose them no matter what.

  3. Anuj says:

    There are also companies like Seclore which can not only use the application injection method so that passwords are not required but can also authenticate with pretty much any authentication service available like Active Directory, Google Accounts etc.