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Survey: Small Firms Recognize Insider Risk, But Don't Act

Symantec report finds most breaches at small to midsize businesses caused by people, not malware

More than two-thirds of small to midsize businesses admitted that human error or deliberate sabotage by their employees was the cause of a data breach at their companies, according to a new survey released today by Symantec.

And nearly 80 percent pointed to the loss of a device or backup tape as another breach source, indicating that malicious, clumsy, or forgetful employees are the cause of a huge amount of lost data each year.

So what are these companies doing to do to protect themselves? Not nearly as much as they could : Lack of staff and human bandwidth are key reasons for a lack of security action, they claim, along with budget concerns that are heightened in these tight financial times.

The survey, conducted by Applied Research and commissioned by Symantec, garnered responses from 400 North American IT professionals (more than 1,400 worldwide), including companies with as many as 500 employees -- though the largest group of returns came from companies with less than 100 people. While the survey was not focused solely on insider security risks, the extent to which a variety of insider-oriented threats are a source of concern was notable.

While "insider attacks" garnered low concern rates relative to other threats -- with 57 percent saying they were "extremely concerned" or "somewhat concerned" -- data losses via email and USB devices scored much higher on the worry scale, with about 68 percent saying that each was a concern. Factor in responses with an employee-driven component -- including the loss of a laptop or mobile device containing confidential data, response to phishing scams, and data breaches -- and the number of firms concerned by insider or insider-related threats was overwhelming.

Despite another recent report in which most security professionals said insider threats were far more worrisome that external threats, the Symantic report reveals that virus infection remains the single greatest security concern in the minds of small-business managers. While this is understandable in light of the tremendous recent press coverage of the Conficker worm, it flies in the face of companies' data breach experiences.

Kevin Murray, senior director of security product marketing for Symantec, says the survey tells a story of gaps. "Management at small and medium businesses understand that security is important, but they're not acting, and those gaps in action cause breaches," Murray says.

According to Symantec, nearly 60 percent of small and midsize companies have endpoint protection -- defined in the survey as comprehensive workstation and mobile platform security tools that might include encryption, IDS/IPS functionality, firewall software, employee monitoring, and antimalware functionality. Almost half do not have backup and recovery capabilities for their workstations, and more than one-third do not have a backup and recovery program in place for their servers.

This gap may be related to the nature of small businesses: More than 40 percent of the surveyed businesses, for example, do not have dedicated IT staff; one-quarter said company managers or executives look after IT issues. General employee IT skills and awareness are also key issues, with almost 75 percent listing one of them as barriers to greater security. Budget was also listed as an impediment to greater security, since the median IT security budget was $4,500 among the respondents.

And yet another gap: Nine of out 10 companies said their IT security budgets will grow or stay the same in the next year. "They say that their budgets are a reason not to act, but at the same time they say that their budgets are growing," Murray says.

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