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End Users Flout Enterprise Security Policies

Separate studies show many users understand rules, but they break them anyway

If end users really understood your organization's security policies, they would follow them, right?

Wrong, according to studies released separately today by two security vendors, RSA and SecureInfo. Though they targeted different audiences, both studies reach a common conclusion: Security "awareness" may not be enough to stop end users from engaging in risky behavior.

"We already know about users who create problems because they don't know the policy and about users who violate policies with malicious intent," says Sam Curry, vice president of product management and marketing at RSA. "What we're finding is that there is a third, growing group of users who knowingly violate security policy not to do something malicious, but because they are trying to get their jobs done. This sort of violation is innocent, but deliberate."

According the RSA study, about 35 percent of workers routinely make a conscious decision to break enterprise security policy because they want to expedite their work or increase their own productivity. Such users may choose to export sensitive data to their personal devices or access the company network via a poorly-secured public wireless hotspot, Curry observes.

"They're just trying to get their work done -- in their minds, the importance of the work outweighs the security concern," Curry says. "But the compromises that occur as a result can be just as damaging as if they didn't know the policy at all."

SecureInfo today released a similar study that asks some of the same questions of federal government employees. That study indicates that only about 20 percent of government workers follow prescribed security policies all of the time. Some 22 percent of respondents believe their government co-workers follow security policy less than half of the time.

These violations occurred despite the fact that 97 percent of the government employees polled had been required to take some sort of IT security awareness training during the year, SecureInfo said.

"The good news is government workers and their leadership understands the importance of information security," said Chris Fountain, CEO of SecureInfo. "The bad news is workers seem to lack an understanding of the critical role they play in protecting information assets. There needs to be more accountability across the government workforce."

But motivating employees to follow policy can be difficult, Curry notes. "A company basically has three motivational tools -- financial, social, and moral," he observes. "You can tie their behavior to their raises or financial incentives, but that can be difficult because you're essentially trying to prove a negative. You can encourage it socially, through peer pressure, or you can try to convince employees that morally, it's the right thing to do. All of those answers can be problematic."

SecureInfo's study indicates that only 48 percent of government workers who took the security awareness training were tested on what they learned, and only 33 percent said they remembered most of what they had been taught.

And despite awareness training efforts, many employees don't see security as their concern, according to the RSA study. While the majority of end users say employees share the responsibility for system security, a whopping 43 percent say computer security is solely an IT issue.

"What this says is that, in addition to awareness, there's a whole issue of risk that needs to be better understood, both by the company and by the employee," Curry says.

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  • RSA Security Inc. (Nasdaq: EMC)
  • SecureInfo Corp.
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