Information Security in the Real World. Confidentiality, Availability, Integrity, Practicality.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Human Nature. Friend, not Foe?

A good education programme is worth a dozen new technical controls.

In 2007, details of 25 million UK citizens went missing on two CDs because a junior employee didn't know the rules and management procedures were lax. Similar mistakes led to huge data losses in more recent years at Zurich insurance, UK railways operator Network Rail and the British Ministry of Defence.

One possible response to these breaches is a technological one. Maybe Data-Loss Prevention technology could have helped, even something as simple as disabling the writable DVD drive on employee workstations. If the employee could not copy data to DVD they could not have lost it.

But are we missing the point? These were human failings. Like many security issues these were entirely preventable human errors. A system of people is capable of a myriad different failings. If we continue to throw expensive technological solutions at human error then we will never be finished. Wouldn't we feel better knowing that our employees know what is expected of them in the fight to remain secure and compliant? That they are on the side of Information Security and they work with us to prevent fraud, loss and service disruption?

This is what a security awareness programme does. A good one will change people's understanding of security, will encourage them to feel part of the solution, and engender good habits in their day to day activities. If the HMRC junior employee had had some education around the value of sensitive information, the trust placed in them by their customers - the British people - and the risks inherent in moving that data from a secure place to an insecure one, then maybe that breach would never have happened.

Much talk after the events above was about technological prevention and improving procedures. But human nature suggests that whatever technical or administrative control you put in place, there will be a tendency to resent the control,  to see it as a barrier to productivity and to work around it. More so if the subjects of the control - the employees with pressure to get the job done - perceive it to be too restrictive, or don't value the risk you are mitigating.

Technical and administrative controls have their place, they are a major weapon against data breaches. But a far more effective weapon is the power of human nature. Education programmes can go a long way to change staff behaviour and keep your data safe.

Why then do we spend so much money on technological solutions to human problems? DLP and Security Incident and Event Management (SIEM) are often recommended after a breach with its roots in human error. While these have their place, human element measures such as education are often more cost-effective. So why the technological focus?

Maybe it has something to do with the people doing the recommendations. Maybe the auditors, analysts and CISOs feel they have to justify their position and sizeable fee by sounding knowledgeable. Recommending staff training does not sound like expert Information Security advice. It's too simple, and not what we expect from a CISSP/CISA/whatever. So several new appliances and desktop software suites are recommended - the latest wizardry - thus the CIO feels he has received value for money from his security experts.

This needs to change. We need to value the human element in our Information systems, and recognise that it needs managing at least as expertly as the digital elements. Our people need help, encouragement and empowerment to become security advocates.

Once you've established a permanent, rolling security education programme then you might want to review your technical controls and ensure they are appropriate to the risk you are managing. Who knows, maybe you might find you can relax some controls without degrading your risk posture, and at the same time make your staff more productive. And what CIO doesn't want that?

1 comment: