Your Biggest Risk: People With Good Intentions (But Bad Education)
Compliance and security is at greater risk from people than technology
In case you didn't see the recent report by CNNMoney's Stacy Cowley from the Def Con 20 hacker convention in Las Vegas, "How a lying 'social engineer' hacked Wal-Mart," Cowley reports on the contest winner who captured every data point possible in a 20-minute conversation with a small-town store manager.
It was the third year for the hacking contest that uses only social engineering, not technology, to get the information needed to breach security at large corporations.
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Using only their brains, prior research, and a telephone, the contestants convinced well-meaning employees, including management, to share enough information to pose significant security risks.
The contest intentionally avoids certain types of private information, such as exact passwords and Social Security numbers. But considering how successful some of these contestants were in coaxing information out of people, it is no stretch to realize that most of any company's crucial information is well within reach of the most skilled social engineering hackers.
So what does this mean for your organization? No matter how much money you spend on firewalls, encryption, and security policies, you will only be as secure as the people who use your systems. An ultra-strong password is no defense if the person it belongs to will log in, print private data, and hand it to any stranger with a convincing but unverified story.
Most people like to help others in need. Few want to be the jerk who refuses to help a colleague struggling to get a complicated job done. This is why social engineering is often an easier tool than defeating network firewalls and encryption.
Some see this as a problem of small companies that lack the infrastructure to provide regular training and awareness. Large organizations often spend more time and money on security efforts than small firms. However, the size of these large organizations creates a different and possible greater danger. In a big company, you can't know everyone, so dealing with strangers as trustworthy colleagues is common. Threats to the company use this cultural habit to essentially hide in plain sight, posing as one of these unknown trusted co-workers to gain the information they need.
The problem for organizations of all sizes is really one of people failing to firmly embrace a security mindset. Such an attitude cannot be accomplished with only a brief annual security training class or by requiring staff to read a security rule document when they are hired. Such token efforts do not educate staff on appropriate and practical security. In fact, without ongoing reinforcement, such limited training efforts actually suggest security and compliance are not important to the organization.
Security and compliance are accomplished through creating a daily culture of understanding risk and being thoughtful in our responses. It is a blend of technology and behavior; neither alone is capable of defending important information from prying eyes, malicious technology, and imaginative con artists.
Glenn S. Phillips will not call and claim he needs your help to work remotely on your firewall. He is the president of Forte' Incorporated, where he works with business leaders who want to leverage technology and understand the often hidden risks within. Glenn is the author of the book Nerd-to-English, and you can find him on Twitter at @NerdToEnglish.