Employee security awareness: it’s not about “should” or “shouldn’t.”
If there’s one myth in the footwear industry that just won’t die, it’s that everyone should have a pair of shoes. You can see the reasoning behind it, of course. We’ve all heard about the kid that ran around barefoot, stepped on a nail and had to get incredibly painful tetanus shots.
But do accidents like this prove that shoes are a must or is just the opposite? If people everywhere can get foot injuries with or without shoes, doesn’t that suggest that shoes really aren’t all that important?
One of the best examples ever of the limitations of shoes is Abebe Bikila, who won the 1960 Summer Olympics marathon without any shoes at all.
Fundamentally, what society is saying when demanding that people wear shoes is “it’s not our fault” if people take risks – like not wearing shoes – and get injured. But this is false. An individual has no control over where they put their feet and they don’t have the ability to recognize hazards like broken glass, nails or poisonous vipers. After all, is the average person really a match for a vicious snake? Blaming poisonings on a lack of shoes is misguided – particularly given the stabby nature of snake fangs.
I’ll admit, it’s hard to find statistical evidence that supports this point of view. Not surprisingly, shoe manufacturers don’t share data on how protective their products truly are …
That’s probably enough of that nonsense.
In case you didn’t know, this post is in response to Dave Aitel’s recent article at CSO. While I am hardly one to defend the status quo, there are two logical fallacies at play here. The first is binary thinking … effectively saying “if a defense isn’t 100% effective, it’s not worth doing.” The second is the flaw of hand-picking anecdotes to support your premise.
This is regrettable because the bulleted advice on page two of Aitel’s article is good, if somewhat standard. It’s just that instead of following this advice rather than “wasting time on employee training,” it should be done in addition to employee training.
To drastically over-simplify, security involves identifying what you need to protect and then protecting it. In a global security market (which we’ve matured into), you have a second rule … identify what you want and attack until you get it. These two rules play against one another, with both the attackers and defenders constantly increasing their capabilities until a defender somewhere gets compromised or an attacker gets sloppy, caught and removed from the game.
Then, you repeat the cycle ad infinitum.
In a world that operates this way, the weakest entity is going to be the first out, on either side. And, since security is multidimensional, it will be the first entity with weak enough security along any dimension … technology, process or people. By removing your focus entirely from awareness training to focus on technology and process, you defend only part of your organization. By focusing strictly on network-based defenses, you open a massive hole for non-network attacks.
As soon as it becomes easiest for an attacker to bribe an internal employee to sell them data, they will. As soon as it becomes easiest for them to bluff their way through a job interview to steal data, they will. As soon as it becomes easiest to put on a uniform to steal equipment, they will.
The attacker’s game is “whatever works,” and if we only focus on what is easiest for us to do, we open up doors for attacks.
So … stop spending money on awareness if you want … but only do so if you have taken a good view of your entire organization and have identified areas where those resources are better spent. Be aware, though, that just as we lack solid statistics on how bad awareness is as a defensive layer, we also lack solid statistics on how good it is. For every story I can tell on how I’ve found a person not doing what they should in an organization, I have one that talks about how good they are.
If you need contrarian advice, avoid those that are expressed as binaries. Consider the following:
- Does password rotation cause more trouble than it’s worth? If users are selecting bad passwords because they have to change them often, maybe it’s time to stop doing that.
- If you have security alerts that are being ignored by your people, your systems probably aren’t being maintained properly. As soon as you stop maintaining your systems, they shift from being assets to liabilities. Thinking about fixing them … or getting rid of them.
- Are your people overly constrained? If you have customer service employees following scripts, you’ve basically turned them into technology. Turns out that we have technology in the first place because people are bad at that sort of thing. Ponder that.
- Is a data breach all that bad? In some industries, sure … but if it were universal, it seems as though there’d be a lot more companies going out of business. Think about what a breach would really mean and how you’d handle it. Odds are, you’re far weaker in response capabilities than you are on defense. Instead of shifting defense dollars from people to technology, maybe you need to invest somewhere else entirely.
Basically, the core lesson here is “think before you spend.” Don’t blindly follow the advice of anyone (including me). Assess your environment, consider your goals and the events that could prevent you from achieving them. Then, and only then, look at how you choose to use your resources.
(This post was originally published at RJS Smart Security.)