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IT Snooping: Too Much Ado About Something?

There's been a lot of buzz lately about internal threats, and like most buzz, some of it's on-target. But some of it seems designed to make us paranoid about our employees -- to what end? Do we need to distrust everyone on our IT staffs and, by implication, everyone in our companies? And where does that get us?
There's been a lot of buzz lately about internal threats, and like most buzz, some of it's on-target. But some of it seems designed to make us paranoid about our employees -- to what end? Do we need to distrust everyone on our IT staffs and, by implication, everyone in our companies? And where does that get us?A recent report on IT staff snooping on confidential information blames the trend -- a third of IT pros admit to looking where they're not supposed to, according to the Cyber-Ark report -- on the poor economy.

Maybe so -- if layoffs or cutbacks are coming, people are going to want whatever advance information they can get, and IT staff does know how to get the information.

But how is this any different from the sorts of "snooping" done by the typist or file clerk (if anyone remembers what those were) compiling layoff lists in the 1950s or earlier?

Wrong then, wrong now.

The point is that human nature remains human nature, no matter how digital our age. Anyone who's been at a company in whatever capacity during tough times knows that as the rumor mill grinds into higher gear so do efforts to get some information to support or deny the rumors.

Sure it's wrong, but it's just as surely an inevitable aspect of the nature of organizations.

I've been bothered more than once over the past few increasingly tough years by the growing trend of the press (and surveys and reports) to pit businesses against their employees and against employee threats. I've written more than a few of these stories and posts myself.

But there's a point, too, where reasonableness and that sense of community and shared effort that marks so many small and midsized businesses has to come into play.

Noting that IT employees have the tools to get around security protocols and procedures falls a good distance into the Department of Self-Evident (And Unavoidable) Truths.

Knee-jerk distrust of your IT staff as a result of that Truth falls a good distance past the boundaries of commonsense. If you don't trust the employees who are most responsible for the security of your most private and confidential information, why are they your employees in the first place?

If you find employees (trusted ones, too) violating your confidentiality and access policies, fire them and, if necessary prosecute them: more self-evident truths.

But the thing about insider threat statistics is that they reflect more than just technology.

A third of IT employees may be snooping, and that may well reflect both the economy and the nature of technology, but it also simply reflects the challenge of having employees.

In other words, it's a sure bet that 100% of embezzlements are inside jobs, and have been since before the days of paper ledgers. But that doesn't make every employee an embezzler, even potentially.

Likewise, while the critical importance of recognizing insider threats and guarding against them can't be over-stressed, there's also a point where you have to say, "Yeah, but..."

As in: "Yeah, but most of my employees are loyal, dependable, reliable. My job is to weed out the ones who aren't, and pout in place the tools, technologies, and policies that will defer temptation on the part of those who remain.

Naive? I don't think so. Idealistic, maybe, but most of the small and midsized business owners (and, for that matter, employees) I know are idealistic themselves; their ideals are among the most essential tools they're using to build their businesses.

These are not small issues, and they're issues every small and midsized business needs to consider.

Nor am I taking issue with the Cyber-Ark report.

In fact, the Cyber-Ark report is not only well worth reading, it's also, I think, must reading, both for what it says about IT staff and also, just as importantly, what it asks us to think about in terms of our staffs and management's relationship to them.

Recommended Reading:
Editors' Choice
Kirsten Powell, Senior Manager for Security & Risk Management at Adobe
Joshua Goldfarb, Director of Product Management at F5