study (PDF) conducted by Cisco in 2008, approximately 70 percent of IT security professionals said that unauthorized use of applications accounted for at least half of their organizations' data leaks. Eighty-three percent of end users in the study said they used their work machines for personal reasons at least some of the time; nearly half of the users said they transfer files between work and personal machines when working from home.
More recently, Palo Alto Networks issued its "Application Usage and Risk Report" (AUR), which analyzes the data collected by its firewalls at some 350 organizations. The report shows that applications such as instant messaging, social networking, streaming media, and even peer-to-peer file sharing are nearly pervasive in all organizations, regardless of industry or geography.
"One of the things that we consistently find is that enterprises have a lot more email apps on their networks than they think," Bonvanie says. "Aside from the one or two that are officially deployed, they sometimes find 20 or 30 other apps --not just Webmail, but a whole range of email apps that shouldn't be there. That has to be worrisome for these companies because sensitive data could be sent out through any one of those apps without the company knowing about it."
Powers says Lancope often finds users employing unauthorized methods to "remote in" to their work PCs from other locations, such as GoToMyPC.com or PC Anywhere. "In my mind, those are some of the most dangerous misuses because applications like that are essentially serving corporate data to the Internet," he says.
Not surprisingly, social networking sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, were cited by all of the experts. "The bandwidth consumed by social networking sites doubles about every six months," Bonvanie says. "And that's a concern, too, because the bad guys are constantly coming up with new ways to use those environments to hide or transmit malware or steal information."
Many users are also finding new ways to obscure their identities or obfuscate the data they are transmitting over the Web, experts say. Use of proxies, anonymizers, and tunneling is increasing, making it harder to detect leaks or pinpoint their sources, they say.
So what can enterprises do about users' routine misuse of their corporate PCs and network connections? Interestingly, the experts don't advocate taking a hard-line stance. "A lot of companies try to enforce it by implementing active controls on the PC, and users hate that," Powers says. "It makes sense to shut down traffic that has no business reason behind it -- like P2P file-sharing or file transfers between the finance department and some region of the world where you aren't doing business. But if you make the rules too restrictive, users will try to find a way around them."
Bonvanie agrees. "Today, the most common scenario is that the IT organization simply issues a flat-out 'no' -- no Facebook, no Skype, no Google Apps," he says. "And what we see is that it often doesn't work. Users are getting a lot smarter at getting around security policy to do what they feel they need to do. What makes more sense is to set a policy that users can live with, and then be tougher about enforcing it."
Companies should set policies that recognize workers' needs to access company data -- securely -- from home, and occasionally employ their work computers -- securely -- for personal activities, the experts say.
"Set a baseline for behavior that is acceptable for everyone, and then monitor for activity that's beyond the baseline," Powers advises. "If you can recognize unusual behavior on a certain node or PC, you can then drill in and see what else is happening there, and enforce your policy."
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