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Perceptions Of Security Vary Widely Between IT Management, Security Staff

Survey of federal government IT organizations could be indicative of many other large enterprises, Ponemon says

When it comes to important security issues, you'd think the perceptions of security professionals and their bosses -- the top-level IT managers -- would be in lockstep. Not so, according to a study published today.

The study of federal government IT departments, which was conducted by research firm Ponemon Institute and sponsored by CA, suggests there are significant differences between the concerns and priorities assigned to security issues by top IT executives and those seen by line-level security technical staff.

For example, the survey showed a marked difference in the two groups' perception of security training, according to the study. Nearly two-thirds of IT security staffers see training of end users (62 percent) and security experts (63 percent) as "very important," but only 41 percent of IT executives cited user training as very important, and only 43 percent gave the same rating to training of security staff.

Federal IT staffers also are significantly less confident than IT executives that their agency is compliant with all applicable regulatory security requirements, such as FISMA, the study says. Of those IT staff who thought their agency was not compliant, 30 percent thought it was due to lack of accountability and senior leadership, or support from senior management. Forty-six percent of IT executives who thought they didn't meet requirements cited lack of enforcement as the primary reason.

The study showed a 31 percent gap in the importance of privileged user password management (PUPM). Sixty-two percent of IT staff-level respondents deemed PUPM very important, while just 31 percent of executives thought it was very important.

The results of the federal survey are not necessarily an indictment of the government IT sector, but are probably indicative of the gaps in perception that occur in many large enterprises, says Larry Ponemon, founder and CEO of the Ponemon Institute.

"My gut tells me that if we did this same survey in, say, financial services, we'd get pretty much the same results," Ponemon says.

The growing discrepancy of viewpoints within the IT organization occurs partly because information about the corporate security posture is often "sanitized" as it moves up the chain, Ponemon states.

"What we found in this study and others is that organizations have filters for passing information upward, and that bad news has a way of disappearing as it moves toward the executive office suite," Ponemon says. "There's also a problem when technical people have difficulty communicating the extent of a threat or situation. Some of these problems are cultural, not technical."

The question of privileged passwords -- those that are used for higher-level administration of IT systems and typically limited to use by IT staff -- is a good example of how the gap between staff and management is created, according to Phil Kenney, director of information assurance and identity and access management in CA's public sector business unit.

"The people in the trenches know how those passwords are being used -- how much damage can be caused by misuse and also how much those passwords might be shared or left in the clear," Kenney says. "Senior management feels like it's doing a good job maintaining those [passwords], but the line-level folks know what's really going on."

"In my mind, it conjures up an image of World War I," Ponemon says. "The generals are looking at the overall battle strategy of security, but the guys in the trenches are the ones who really understand the dangers of the mustard gas."

Gilda Carle, a relationship expert who has worked with large organizations, such as the U.S. Army, the Internal Revenue Service, and IBM, agrees. "Executives tend to see the big picture, whereas the IT staff-level sees a more focused view. The difference in viewpoints can greatly affect how well an organization achieves its objectives. CBS has even created a No. 1 hit based on this principle called 'Undercover Boss,' where bosses become part of the rank and file, and everyone learns what life is like from the other side."

Shoring up the discrepancy will mean building more consistent metrics for measuring the effectiveness of security and for prioritizing security measures, the experts say.

"It's not a matter of using the same metrics -- obviously, technical people have a different view that's more detailed -- but the metrics that the technical people see need to support the metrics that the top management gets," Kenney says. "If they're using radically different benchmarks, they're going to have different views about what's working and what isn't."

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Tim Wilson is Editor in Chief and co-founder of Dark Reading.com, UBM Tech's online community for information security professionals. He is responsible for managing the site, assigning and editing content, and writing breaking news stories. Wilson has been recognized as one ... View Full Bio

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