Don't Blame Me, I'm Just An Employee
If you're looking for a cure for mishandling of sensitive data, then look no further than your own management team
Five years ago I remember contemplating some future day when the general workforce would come to understand the importance of securing sensitive data, taking a personal interest -- and even making a personal effort -- in support of that goal. Fast-forward to last week. While reviewing the findings of a customer's data risk assessment, I came to a personal realization: The workforce will never learn.
Not surprisingly, the results of this risk assessment were similar to the dozens before it. Despite the fact that the findings supported the need for my company's products and services, I found myself strangely deflated and disappointed. But there was also another feeling welling up inside me that I couldn't immediately identify. It was something unusual for the situation, a deeper, rawer emotion. Anger. I was officially mad.
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I'd been through this process more than 100 times and had never been angry. Yet here I was sitting in front of my customer, seething inside. I couldn't let the anger show, of course, so I shouted in my mind, "Have end users learned nothing in the past five years?" We found incidents of users still sending spreadsheets with personally identifiable information, such as names and Social Security, credit card, and account numbers, to personal email accounts. Customer service reps were still replying to customer email messages in cleartext, leaving credit card numbers, expiration dates, and card security codes in place. Network and workstation drives were still chock-full of interesting and scary sensitive data saved by unwitting end users. And FTP jobs thought to be secure were still transmitting sensitive data in the clear.
As we reviewed the individual incidents and saw the usernames ascribed to each occurrence of data misuse -- billyjones, sallylu, etc. -- my anger toward the end users began to wane. Knowing this particular customer as I do, and the general lack of executive management support for data protection, suddenly it was management I found in my crosshair. A torrent of memories of working with this customer came flooding to my mind. New roadblocks seemed to appear anytime we identified an area of needed improvement. Always willing to talk a good talk, but seldom willing to put their money where their mouths were, my anger and frustration shifted entirely to the management team.
Don't get me wrong; end users must still do their part. In fact, there's a growing awareness for data security among the workforce that will certainly continue to improve. However, as much as we may wish, data security is simply not the mindset of the average end user. The breach news, if they even hear it, doesn't mean anything to them. Whether we like it or not, their focus is on completing their primary job duties, right where it should be. The ultimate responsibility for data security still rests with management.
Management must accept that responsibility and force a shift in corporate consciousness toward data security. This shift begins with attention at the executive level and filters down through the organization by means of those inconvenient data security tasks that are all too often left undone: organized training, internal awareness initiatives, and reinforcement with enforcement technologies. Until management takes action to increase awareness among its workforce, it is difficult to expect a higher level of end user care for sensitive data.
Jared Thorkelson is founder and president of DLP Experts, a vendor-agnostic VAR and consulting practice focused exclusively on data protection. He can be reached at email@example.com.