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Study: Routine Misbehavior by End Users Can Lead to Major Data Leaks

Many end users don't understand the risks associated with breaking company security policies, report says

The increasing overlap between users' business lives and their personal lives is wreaking havoc on corporate policies for using company-issued PCs and mobile devices, according to a study published today.

The study, commissioned by Cisco Systems and conducted by market research firm Insight Express, confirms IT managers' suspicions that many users routinely break corporate security policies in order to do personal business at work. A previous Cisco-sponsored study showed similar security risks among employees who do work at home. (See Remote Workers Still Living Dangerously, Cisco Study Says.)

The new study indicates that users frequently download unauthorized data and applications to their work machines for personal use. About 80 percent of employees use their company-issued PCs for personal email, and about half use their work PCs for personal Web research and online banking.

More than half of end users have changed the security settings on their company-issued laptop to view restricted Websites, even though they knew it was against company policy. About 35 percent say it is "none of the company's business" if they have changed the security settings on their computer, the study says.

"There are still a lot of users out there who see their company PC as 'their' machine, and they feel they should be able to do what they want on it," says Cisco security expert Christopher Burke. "There is still a lot of user education that needs to be done."

The problem is more acute in different cultures, both corporate and geographic. In China, for example, the use of corporate computers for personal matters is much more rampant than it is in the U.S. Seventy-four percent of Chinese employees use their work machines for personal instant messaging, as opposed to 26 percent in the U.S. Twenty-four percent of Chinese employees use their work PCs for peer-to-peer photo or file sharing; only 1 percent of U.S. users admit to taking that risk.

But IT executives say the use of non-IT-approved programs and applications is causing leakage of sensitive corporate data. More than half of IT execs say that such unauthorized activity causes as much as 25 percent of the data leakage in their organizations; 16 percent say it causes up to 50 percent.

Many users also share both company devices and sensitive company information with others, including colleagues, friends, and family members, the study says. More than 40 percent of the users said they shared sensitive information because they felt the need to "bounce an idea off of someone." About 30 percent said they felt the need to vent and/or didn't see anything wrong with sharing the sensitive information.

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