Contributor:
Paul Kenyon
February 7th, 2013

Are Unwitting Employees the Weak Link for Organizational Security?

As the sophistication of malware evolves and organizations face an increasingly tumultuous threat landscape, heavy investments are continually made for new security controls, policies and best practices. Yet, one critical – but avoidable – flaw remains. The human aspect of IT practice is a key weakness for most organizations, and the vast majority of today’s breaches continue to stem from internal end-user error, rather than external attacks  In fact, among 308 security breaches examined in the latest Information Security Trends study by CompTIA, 54 percent were caused by human error, and nearly half of those errors were attributed to end-users’ failure to follow company security policies.

When employees allow suspect malware to go unnoticed, even by unwittingly running an HTML link hosting infected content, or simply opening an email attachment, the consequences could be devastating. Take the case of South Carolina’s recent Department of Revenue breach, for example. An employee who unknowingly clicked an email link opened the government agency to a large-scale cyber-attack.  This simple mishap cost the state $14 million and compromised the personal and financial data of millions of residents.

Cybercriminals recognize that users with excess privileges, particularly those who lack the resources to identify and report an attack, are ripe for malware’s intrusion.  As organizations come to realize this, there are a couple of options to consider. Locking down all administrative privileges is one, but when rights are too restrictive, employees are left struggling to perform day-to-day tasks. Organizations are left grappling for ways to empower users with the privileges they need to perform their roles, without compromising network security.

To strike this balance, organizations are increasingly adopting the methodology of least privilege management, granting privileges to applications instead of users, and elevating those privileges only when needed. By restricting certain actions, such as blocking the ability to make system tweaks, or preventing the installation of unsanctioned software, human errors can be prevented.

Of course, a key component of combating human error is end-user education, and this involves talking to users. With customized messaging, IT can communicate appropriate messages to users based on their activity. Messages might, for example, provide the user with additional information, such as warning the user of their actions or blocking an application from running. This way, users know and understand exactly what risks they’re encountering. Adding in corporate branding, localization, end-user reason or request and help desk integration, user experience is heightened, and communication feels truly human.

No matter how well an organization is able to safeguard its enterprise assets, unaware users are a hidden vulnerability that could breach even the most impenetrable defenses. End-user experience is at the heart of endpoint security, and organizations should establish an environment in which employees have clear feedback and guidance on their actions.  With a software solution in place to incorporate user interaction for ongoing security awareness, IT can ensure their users are productive, while their network is safe.

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