We Need More Than Security Awareness to Combat Insider Threats

February 12, 2020
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4 min read

When I was new to the security industry, I firmly believed that people got infected with malware because they didn’t know how to be safe online. I thought problems happened because computers were too complicated, or the technology was too daunting, or people were just too trusting and naive. But clearly I knew better. I saw the dangers lurking on the internet and knew how attacks worked, so all I had to do to end the risk of insider threats was tell people how to protect themselves.

If you guessed that I’ve since learned I was the naive one, you are correct. While I still feel that security education is crucial, I no longer believe that a lack of security awareness is the biggest reason why cybercrime is still a problem. There’s plenty of information available to us on how to protect ourselves, and yet malware attacks and data breaches keep occurring.

Security Is Obtainable in a World of Insider Threats

There are plenty who would say that issues around malware and similar threats are due to people being stubborn, lazy or ignorant of how much damage a security incident can cause. Most security awareness campaigns are based around these assumptions.

While I won’t discount the possibility that some people simply need a little more information or are obstinate about doing things safely, most people want to improve security because it’s something that genuinely concerns them. However, the vast majority of people also have other priorities that don’t seem to be in step with traditional security policies at first glance.

Typically, security rules are all about locking things down: Don’t click this, don’t go to that site, don’t use that app. But that isn’t how security experts always operate. We exercise everyday vigilance and use a combination of tools to protect against insider threats and outside attacks. We also set up sandboxes where we can safely examine files we think might be problematic and check out suspicious websites or dodgy apps. If we can do this for ourselves, there’s no reason we can’t set up systems that allow everyone in the office to do their jobs effectively and securely.

What Can We Do to Promote Safer Use?

Enabling users to work safely cannot be accomplished with a one-size-fits-all solution. Mandating that all users follow a single, monolithic set of security rules may seem like a simple approach, but if that policy disallows necessary tools and processes, users are either going to be less productive or implement shadow IT options, which can put data at greater risk. Adopting a more nuanced stance can decrease costs and improve performance in the long run.

Understand What Your Coworkers Need

The first thing you need to do to enable safer usage is find out which apps and services people in your organization need to do their jobs and which ones they don’t need. For some employees, this may be as simple as locking down unapproved apps and services or unnecessary functionalities. Other employees may require more complex setups; you might give them a sandbox where they can open unexpected attachments safely, or they may need more advanced training on how to handle suspicious attachments.

Make Safety Easier

Modern software allows people to perform a lot of powerful functions with little or no thought. Unfortunately, this degree of functionality can encourage people to do things that decrease their security. What’s more, most security technologies introduce hurdles that can decrease functionality. The key word here is “most.”

It is possible to find security tools that introduce only minor hurdles, and it’s also possible to set up your security architecture in a way that makes opting for insecure actions more burdensome. Also, there’s something to be said for choosing a realistic security model instead of trying to achieve the “perfect” situation and failing. Remember that many of the security “best practices” we cling to have been disproved.

Address Both Dos and Don’ts

So much of what we tell people about online safety is what they shouldn’t do, without any advice on what they should do. This can lead to workflow paralysis or worse — some people may feel so overwhelmed by the threat of cybercrime that they simply give up trying to protect themselves because it feels futile.

To counteract these frustrations, you could remind your associates how effective multifactor authentication (MFA) is. You could tell them how using encryption can decrease damages to customers and costs for the business if there is a security incident. The objective here is to empower employees with security awareness, not to scare them into compliance.

Make Staff Your Network’s Eyes and Ears

Even the biggest security team can’t be everywhere or recognize all insider threats in their environment. Establishing relationships with employees from all departments can facilitate mutual communication and encourage employees to come to you if they see something suspicious or are involved in an accident. This can help with identifying potential problems, such as runaway shadow IT or other unmonitored assets, and decreasing the time it takes to spot security incidents.

Don’t Be Afraid to Put Your Foot Down

There will be times when you simply have to say “no” to requests for increased functionality. Sometimes, this will be because you don’t have the time or money to offer the requested app or service safely, and sometimes, it will be because that option just can’t be sufficiently secured. In either case, you’ll win a lot more support by clearly and succinctly explaining the reasoning behind your decision, especially if it’s something you may be able to reconsider in the future.

There’s a certain irony in the declaration: “I’ve seen how the world works, and if I just tell you how to protect yourself better, suddenly everything will magically improve.” I know now that this isn’t how the story actually goes, but I also know that addressing people as equals when we talk about improving security is the first step in discovering what will truly move the needle toward meaningful change. After all, we security professionals are human too, and sometimes, even the experts need to learn new ways of considering security.

Learn more about insider threats in the X-Force Threat Intelligence Index 2020

Lysa Myers

Lysa Myers began her tenure in malware research labs in the weeks before the Melissa virus outbreak in 1999. She watched as the internet grew from small, loc...
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