Why companies need to check their handling of internal threats

Security pros should reevaluate their use of technology and policies to bolster defenses against insider threats that many organizations downplay, a new study shows.

Security pros should reevaluate their use of technology and policies to bolster defenses against insider threats that many organizations downplay, a new study shows.

The threat of employees causing a data breach due to ignorance or malicious intent was behind viruses, data loss and hacking as the top security risks listed by 500 IT decision makers polled by IS Decisions, which specializes in securing Windows infrastructure. The respondents worked in organizations ranging from 50 to 10,000 employees in the U.S. and the U.K.

Only 21 percent of the respondents listed insider threats in the top three, demonstrating a lack of awareness of the seriousness of the risk, according to the survey. A separate study conducted by Forrester Research last year found that insiders were the top source of breaches, with 36 percent of such incidents stemming from inadvertent misuse of data by employees.

"We can do more to mitigate these risks," Chris Bunn, community manager for IS Decisions, said. "It is a technical issue, it is a cultural issue and its a joined up approach where people, teams and organizations can try and prevent insider threats."

Not all the IT pros surveyed were unaware of the dangers employees can pose to security. Fully, 12 percent said their organization had suffered an internal security breach last year and 19 percent had become more concerned about such threats in the last 12 months.

In addition, 12 percent of the respondents said they have become more aware of the damages employees can cause since the Edward Snowden data breach at the U.S. National Security Agency. The former contractor's release of documents of massive Internet surveillance by the NSA has sparked calls for reform from in and outside the U.S.

The study recommends attacking a number of problems inside an organization that could reduce the security threat posed by employees. First is enforcing policies against password sharing, which respondents estimated was the practice of one in five employees.

Second is to install technology that complements Microsoft Active Directory, which is used by the majority of companies to authenticate and authorize access to Windows networks. Capabilities AD cannot provide, but should be in place, include limiting or preventing concurrent logins, setting rules and restrictions around when and how users access the network and real-time monitoring of network access.

Employees should be restricted to specific workstations, devices, departments and IP ranges to reduce the number of systems login credentials can access. In addition, access could be limited to just working hours for employees who do not need to log into the network afterhours.

Security policies should be clear and accessible to all employees. They also should be enforced. IS Decisions found that 29 percent of the respondents said they didn't have a security policy and only 41 percent said it was included in an employee handbook or manual.

Employees also have to be constantly reminded of the policies and why the restrictions are in place, despite the inconvenience they may cause. Only 12 percent of the participants in the survey used technology to provide daily security reminders to employees.

In general, companies need to take a 360-degree view of security that encompasses internal and external threats. Bunn said. "One without the other is off course not the solution at all."

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