Don’t roll the dice when it comes to employee security practices

You might know how to secure your network devices and data centers to keep your corporate intelligence safe. But do you know how to teach your employees how to guard against attacks — not generically, but based on the work they do?

Experts suggest that a well-constructed security plan involves customized training by job function. You need to tell your HR people to manage personnel files that might reside in multiple locations, your facilities crew to watch out for people entering the building with fake IDs and your salespeople to guard access to the company’s CRM system.

Trusting an employee with access to mission-critical or sensitive systems is a risky but unavoidable gamble. Let’s face it: People are wild cards. In fact, let’s take the gambling analogy a step further.

Just as casinos thwart cheaters at every table or station on their floors, so, too, can IT officials thwart breaches by customizing security plans for individual employees in every zone of their companies.

In fact, casino practices can be translated to the corporate IT world to create at a common-sense list of do’s and don’ts for redoubling security based on who does what job. The lessons we learn from craps pits and blackjack tables reveal that it’s never wise to entrust your business’s most valuable or vulnerable assets to a single employee.

Instead, compartmentalize access whenever possible, and never hesitate to look over employees’ shoulders.

Above all, follow the golden rule of a casino: Gauge your level of risk and develop airtight audit trails, urges Bruce Schneier, a security expert in Mountain View, Calif., who has written several books on computer and network security, including Applied Cryptography (Wiley, 1996). Schneier often uses the casino metaphor to drive home important points surrounding individualized security.

“If you look at a casino floor, you will notice immediately that people are watching people,” he says. “That’s because a lot of cash is moving, and it’s moving very quickly.”

Just as edgy casino managers constantly size up everyone on the floor as potential security threats, so must corporate IT security leaders size up every employee.

“People are the weakest link in security. They always have been, and you will never change that,” Schneier says. “But the reality is that you’ve got to deal with people, and people are going to make mistakes.”

Security isn’t the responsibility of a single security manager or even a security department. Just as quality was understood in the 1980s to be the responsibility of everyone in an organization, so, too, is security everyone’s responsibility.

Each person in the organization creates, works with, transports and stores valuable information and physical assets. And each employee has a responsibility to safeguard those assets. Unfortunately, too often employees aren’t educated by the organization as to what their duties are and how they can effectively manage risk while still getting their jobs done.

And the idea that an organization must guard against nefarious insider activity isn’t new, either.

“Most effective security programs address the people element, and any job function with access to an organization’s valuable resources or assets is a risk,” explains Kent Anderson, managing director of Network Risk Management LLC in Portland, Ore. Anderson cites a wide range of personnel who pose mighty risks — everyone from security guards to IT workers to higher-level executives with the authority to override security controls.

The people problem continues to grow, since it is now harder to differentiate between internal and external threats.

“The difference between an insider and an outsider is no longer clear,” says Anderson, who cautions corporations to be aware of the ways that contractors, outsourcers, vendors, partner companies and suppliers could gain access to sensitive corporate data — either by accident or by design.

While spotting risks can be tricky enough, addressing weaknesses is even tougher, says Anderson. For example, security training programs often prove ineffective, and many employees will continually disregard advice and fail to pay heed to the cautionary tales delivered at droning security seminars.

“The average employee view is one-dimensional. These individuals are not looking at security from the standpoint of accountability for the organization. They are looking at the issue only as it affects their level of responsibility,” observes Norris Roberts, director of technology for the Jennings, Mo., school district.

A quarterly employee-awareness seminar might provide a check for a compliance-driven security program, but if the employees are left to try to figure out how to apply security controls to their day-to-day job functions, that will probably never happen, says Anderson.

Roberts rattles off a list of security measures employees are likely to ignore.

“Strong password practices are not being applied. The sharing of passwords continues. Good e-mail practices are ignored. And overall, inappropriate user rights and privileges remain a huge problem,” he says.

“The most common mistake when educating end users about security awareness is that the training is frequently presented in a Draconian fashion, which does nothing to encourage employees to cooperate with the policies being implemented,” notes Eddie Zeitler, executive director of International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium Inc., or (ISC)2, in Palm Harbor, Fla.

“Security awareness doesn’t have to be boring,” he says, quickly adding that companies must do far more than just jazz up security training efforts. To make employees more invested, IT shops must convince workers that security measures are imposed for the benefit of both employer and employee.

“If employees realize they could lose their jobs over something that could have been prevented by practicing common-sense security measures, they are given extra incentive to play by the rules,” Zeitler says.

Playing by the rules is non-negotiable at casinos, where the stakes are high. Corporations that have just as much to lose must constantly communicate the same message. Only then will granting the privilege of access no longer be such a gamble.

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