Employee Risk: Dealing With Risky Network Users

July 28, 2015
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3 min read

We often hear about how employee risk is at the root of many security problems. Whether they are choosing the path of least resistance by using weak passwords, ignoring those pesky pop-up windows alerting them to software updates or falling for the actions of criminal outsiders sending targeted phishing emails, network users are continually making decisions that end up creating security risks. But why is that? What are the motivations and habits that lead to these behaviors? How do you know when users are making bad choices?

People Are Selfish

One thing I found as I’ve grown older is that people do things for their own reasons — not yours. People are perfectly selfish. So whether you’re dealing with a call center rep or a high-level executive, your network users are going to make decisions around computer and Internet usage based on what they feel is most important at the time and without thinking of the long-term consequences of their actions.

In fact, this is the basis for why most users violate your security policies. Look at the root cause of many breaches or simply ask around. You’ll see that people often don’t know the rules or what’s specifically expected of them. Nor do they believe that IT and security should be a real concern of theirs. After all, the IT or security team keeps everything and everyone safe, right? But that lack of knowledge and awareness often leads to the creation of inadvertent insiders.

Those network users who are seeking ill-gotten gains often know that any security policies that do exist will not be enforced. These people will make calculated decisions to circumvent known security controls and even go as far as tiptoeing around certain areas of your network environment so they don’t draw attention to themselves.

These behaviors are hard to detect and prevent. Any analytical insight into these fraudulent behaviors can help a security program identify key risks or red flags, which could potentially stop a threat before it becomes realized.

How to Mitigate Employee Risk

I’m of the belief that unless and until you address the core elements of your people-centric security challenges — namely ignorance around what’s expected and what not to do — you’ll continue to struggle with this security risk regardless of any other controls you have in place. There are three core elements that must exist in your information security program if you’re going to reduce your employee risks:

  1. Know what you’ve got (i.e., critical information assets) and understand how it’s at risk (i.e., all the possible threats, vulnerabilities and outcomes).
  2. Document your policies and enforce the rules with technology wherever possible.
  3. Maintain the necessary visibility, ideally through proactive logging, monitoring and alerting, so that abuse that’s discovered can be stopped or at least the impact to the business can be minimized.

Can you fully stop insider abuse? As with all other security challenges, you’ll likely never be able to reach a point of zero risk with your users. I do believe, however, that a lot of insider abuse can be stopped if you approach information security in the right ways.

Collect research to see where others are failing with user awareness programs. Assume that your users won’t always do what’s right. Never assume that just because someone had good references, passed a background check and seems to be a good person that he doesn’t have it in him to do bad things. All it takes is someone having financial issues at home or a vendetta against a current boss for your security to go up in smoke.

It’s up to you to set your users up for success. Don’t go overboard with big-brother tactics, but do use your policies, procedures and computer systems to your advantage. Many such controls are being squandered in enterprises around the globe, and that’s often where the trouble begins.

Kevin Beaver
Independent Information Security Consultant

Kevin Beaver is an information security consultant, writer, and professional speaker with Atlanta-based Principle Logic, LLC. With over 29 years of experienc...
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