A five-pillar survival guide for an insecure cyber world

Edward Snowden's action demonstrated that an ordinary insider with a U.S. security clearance can intercept and distribute highly confidential information, even in an age of complex technology designed to prevent such action. What further risks are there?

Here are five pillars to consider in rethinking your approach to data security in a cyber-environment in which both values and risks increase daily:

1. Rely Not On Compliance Policy Alone.  Compliance with legislative and regulatory requirements and internal company policies is mandatory in today's organizations. Failures can lead to significant career and financial penalties.

However, even compliance with legislation and policies designed to improve security may not be sufficient if the policies are not current with respect to growing cyber threats. Organizations need a risk-based approach to security, in addition to compliance. They should also work to ensure compliance requirements receive regular reviews for currency. This is the approach, for example, the US federal government agencies are developing to move from a compliance-driven approach for their security operations to "continuous monitoring" in modernizing the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA).

2. Focus on Protecting Data vs. Infrastructure. Infrastructure in an age of BYOD is highly vulnerable. The American Society of Civil Engineers recently gave US infrastructure a grade of D+ in this area, citing many critical deficiencies. A new paradigm is in order: protect data before infrastructure. Data and information is at the core of invasion risk from such challenges as the Advanced Persistent Threat. Protect your information first.Companies where sensitive and secure data is at stake desire a user interface that is highly functional, yet intuitive and easy to learn. It should provide utmost control and in managing sensitive data for insiders and collaborating organizations.

Major organizations are developing data classification standards to improve the protection of sensitive information. For example, EDUCAUSE, the association of IT leaders in higher education, has published extensively on these policy developments in leading research universities.

3. Security is Ubiquitous. Knowledge workers are everywhere; therefore, their eyes and ears represent a high value of security protection. Organizations must ensure that these knowledge workers are aware of current threats and are able to recognize risky situations quickly.

End-users are also partners and providers, particularly in an emergent age of cloud computing. This calls for provider shielding; the provider has no capability to access the information located within customer data once encryption is set for their application and use. A provider can still add the value of helping their clients build a private cloud without being privy to its content.

4. "He Who Guards Everything, Guards Nothing." Frederick the Great of Prussia said it, but the expression is relevant here. Leadership must think effectively about what needs the most protection. Focus on highest risk areas first and take action upon them, rather than safeguard everything. This is the approach for the above risk-driven approaches to security and a key part of the above data protection policies.

External stakeholders pose risk, but internal stakeholders can pose more risk. Focus on areas such as access and privacy controls and instill security policy and compliance from the inside out. Guard with targeted precision, and your protection will be stronger.

5. Security should be made as simple as possible, but not any simpler.  Einstein said, "Things should be made as simple as possible, but not any simpler." Security should be as simple and user friendly as possible, but still adequate to meet the needs of the organization.

Easy-to-execute security training and qualification is necessary to ensure compliance and improve security. Remember, most of the time employees will choose to address the pressures of their job over the drudgery of reading a security policy. Thus, the quality of the training is essential. Some leading organizations are using game technology for security training to help engage their staff members with security policies and practices.

Similarly, security product and service firms are focusing on effective interfaces and performance levels in their designs. Select the best systems and services to enable your company's policies. In some cases, it is actually as easy to be secure as it is to send a file. It costs one click.

Read more about wide area network in Network World's Wide Area Network section.

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