Sensitivity Labels Bring Rights Management to the Masses

Sensitivity Labels are a Game Changer

Today’s post discusses the use of Microsoft 365 sensitivity labels through an updated set of Office desktop applications coming soon. A previous post reviewed the migration from Azure Information Protection (AIP) labels. Of course, you can create and deploy sensitivity labels to protect Exchange and SharePoint content without going anywhere near AIP. In the long term, AIP labels are only needed if you want to protect content that isn’t stored inside Office 365.

The important point is that AIP labels and sensitivity labels share a common foundation in the Azure Information Protection service and the set of rights management templates published through that service. Both update the same file metadata and both use the same permissions.

Office 365 Protection is built on top of Azure Information Protection

Rights management has been around for a long time. I think the technology got a bad rap because it was deemed complex and unwieldy.  Sensitivity labels change the dynamics because they are easy to create and publish, and easy for users to apply to Office documents stored inside SharePoint and to email sent by Exchange Online. For these reasons, sensitivity labels will make protection through rights management and encryption a daily part of Office 365 life.

Rights and Permissions

Protection means that a user cannot access content unless they have the rights to do so. Furthermore, once a user accesses content, the permissions assigned to them (the rights) dictate what they can do (print, edit, forward, reply, etc.). Protecting documents and email gives authors confidence that they control that content. For instance, adding a new recipient to a reply to protected message is useless from the perspective of that recipient because they don’t get the right to open the content because they’re not in the set assigned to the original message. All in all, protecting Office 365 content is a good thing.

The Downside of Protection

Even good technology can have its downside and protection is no different. Once you protect a document, you lose some functionality. The biggest issue is that Office 365 cannot search the content because it can’t decrypt the content to index it. This means that content searches and eDiscovery must rely on document metadata for its indexes. If users populate the metadata with terms that search can use to find documents, it might not be so much of a problem. But users are humans and humans often don’t do such a good job with metadata.

Of course, if a content search finds some protected content, you then face the further difficulty of what to do with it. Investigators might want to review the content to check whether it’s needed for eDiscovery purposes, but the content is encrypted. The solution is to use super-user privilege to decrypt the content. A technical solution exists, but dealing with encrypted files can be painful.

ISVs and Protection

In addition to the issues thrown up inside Office 365, any ISV who deals with Office 365 content needs to understand if the advent of sensitivity labels and increased use of rights management within Office 365 impacts their product. If a product depends on gaining access to content, it’s going to run into a brick wall when it tries to access protected content.

No Argument Against Protection

You can’t really argue against the goodness of securing access to confidential information. Sensitivity labels give users control over their information, and they should know what’s confidential and needs to be protected. Some user education is needed to ensure that everyone knows how best to use the range of visual markings and protection available through sensitivity labels, but overall, this is a very good feature that’s arriving into Office 365.

To read more about sensitivity labels, rights management, and encryption, go to Chapter 24 of the Office 365 for IT Pros eBook.

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