April 25, 2019 By Kevin Beaver 3 min read

As a consultant, I’ve seen some excellent information security programs over the years — from the latest and greatest technical controls to unfettered executive buy-in to the most amazing sets of security documentation. If there was such a thing as a perfect security program, a handful of these environments might just fit the bill.

Of course, there is no perfect security program; gaps will always exist that must be found and closed. Still, thinking back on all the great security programs I’ve seen, one thing was present every time: good communication. Good communication between IT and management, between IT and end users, and between management and the whole organization.

Good Communication Is Key to a Successful Security Program

Seeing good communication in action is a wonderful thing. Everyone is on board with the security program’s goals and understands what they should and should not be doing on their computers. This can quickly minimize security risks and maximize network resilience. But why is that? Simply put, it’s because we’re human.

From a young age, we’re taught to do this and not do that, yet we’re still determined to do what we want to do, especially if there are no perceived consequences. Parents can especially relate to this. When a child is in danger near a busy road or a hot stovetop, what’s your first inclination? You say, “Don’t do that!” or “Stop.” What does the child do afterward, nine times of out 10? The same thing! And, usually, the parents keep using the same tactic as well.

Just telling someone not to do something is not a good approach. The best thing we can do is tell the person why they shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing in the first place. Information security is no different.

Don’t Just Say ‘No’ to Users, Explain Why

Sure, user behavior is unpredictable. But users need to know what’s expected and why acting certain ways can create problems, not only for themselves, but for the entire organization. Rather than saying, “Don’t do that!” — a common approach on the part of IT staff — users need to know why such behavior and choices actually matter. Opening attachments, clicking links, providing sensitive information without question — these are all actions with big consequences that can be explained quite simply.

Instead of just saying, “No,” users should be shown how to do something differently. Security professionals could show users what a malware infection looks like. They could walk users through an incident response debriefing that outlines all the effort that went into responding to someone’s bad or uninformed choices. Security teams could even show employees what a denial-of-service (DoS) attack or the true consequences of a breach look like.

People like stories. They like to hear details. Videos, infographics and compelling content is usually all you need to engage people. Or, if you need to, leave the storytelling up to an outside professional. All of this can be addressed by moving away from the check-box approach and adding some creativity to the security awareness and training function.

Set Up the Right Boundaries for Your Organization

It’s not just the setting of expectations that is important; boundaries are critical as well — boundaries that the self-disciplined user can work within so they know when to stop when presented with certain scenarios. Better yet, boundaries that you control. Most users are presented with security decisions on a daily basis. That shouldn’t be happening.

Sure, it’s impossible to keep employees from ever having to make a decision. There’s not enough help desk time in the world for that. Still, you can do this using security controls, such as strong passwords, network segmentation and firewalls, and data backups. There are also newer technologies you can use to your advantage, including:

Essentially, anywhere your users touch your network and information assets, there needs to be guidance and control. This approach to security keeps your users from having to make decisions, at least most of the time. Automation can be introduced into the computing experience, along with logging, alerting and reporting. Such boundaries save IT time and effort and, perhaps most importantly, allow users to save face and keep from having to ask IT staff “dumb” questions.

Adults are always aware of being judged, either positively or negatively. One of IT’s biggest responsibilities is to set its users up for success. To guide users with policy, educate them with training and keep them out of trouble by not allowing them to make bad security decisions in the first place. The last thing you need is user behavior that leads to an incident or breach. Look at the human side of your security program. You’ll likely find many gaps and opportunities to make things better for everyone involved.

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