What’s The One Big Issue Behind Almost Every Hack?
Hint: Most Risk Assessments Ignore It!
One questions I always ask on our final coaching call (in The Security Sales Mastery Program)…
“What is your client’s number one security mistake?” Answers vary…
- Poorly configured or managed firewalls,
- Untested backup systems,
- Improper network segmentation
All are important, but none are right, said Security Expert Thomas L. Norman (author of several security/risk analysis books and a recognized industry speaker).
In a recent interview, I asked Tom what he believes is corporate’s biggest mistake…
“Easy!” says Norman, “It’s a lack of user awareness training. Training is always treated as an afterthought, and a waste of time in the mind of employees”
He went on to explain that every security issue is rooted in a mistake made by an end-user, who just didn’t understand security.
In many cases the mistakes are made by hard-working end users doing their job, looking to be helpful and efficient, but out of touch with the surrounding threats.
Experts Without Experience, Opening the Doors To Destruction
Imagine going in for heart surgery. Your surgeon – an expert on IT and certified with his CISSP.
He’s earned his masters in computer science (with a specialty in data security), has designed networks, written books, and even designed his own operating system.
But this is heart surgery!
So while he is able to access everything he needs online, including the patients medical history, YouTube videos on how to perform the surgery, and perhaps even hacked into a paid channel online to observe an actual surgery, he has zero credentials when it comes to medicine and surgery. Are you going to let him proceed?
Now turn this scenario around. The doctor knows everything there is to know about heart disease and protocol. He’s performed hundreds of successful surgeries. Yet, this degreed professional has zero IT experience. He’s used computers, but he has no idea how they work, where patient protected data is stored, or how that data can be used to harm him, the organization, or his patients.
The truth is, there are millions of professionals around you doing all kinds of specialty work. They’re calculating taxes, auditing, designing bridges and buildings (earthquake proof and more), building airplanes and space ships, and performing intricate surgeries.
None of these professionals took on these complex projects without significant training and certifications.
Yet, every one of them is given access to the one device that (if used improperly) has the power to destroy an entire company.
Computers are the heartbeat of your prospect’s business, as well as the central nervous system of government, education, healthcare, and transportation (all critical infrastructure). One wrong move could bring lawsuits, expose data to the competition, threaten the stability of your countries economy, the military, and just about everything that matters – including life itself.
Stupid Things Smart People Do
My first IT job was a CO-OP position at Johnson & Johnson (McNeil Pharmaceuticals). I’ll never forget the day one coworkers deleted our entire poison control system (Highly sensitive data used in drug trials for government approval)!!!!
We were working on DOS back in those days (Window’s predecessor),a command line driven operating system. Just one missing parameter in his command-line ended up deleting everything. Keep in mind, we didn’t have a trash can on the desktop like you do in Windows. Lucky for him, we did have a backup. Still, it was a major ordeal. We had to restore from floppy disks – a painfully slow and risky process.
Smart People do stupid things on computers all the time. Not because they’re stupid. They just don’t know any better. Image how many mistakes you or I might make while performing major surgery using an instructive YouTube Video!!!
On any given day,…
Messages pop up saying your computer’s infected, call this number (a simple ruse used to take over ones computer by phone).
Perhaps you are at home, working on a late night project with an approaching deadline. What will you do? What would the average office worker do?
Another user receives an email from the bank requesting updated information, or a wire transfer request to a known supplier (with updated account numbers). What will they do? Will they check with someone first, or just move the money so they can be back on task?
How many people have been duped on Facebook to friend innocent or attractive looking people, only to be lured into giving up confidential information?
It’s been shown time after time, people trust people, even when they’ve only met online. Office workers are busy. They don’t have time to check with IT every time an email comes in or a website looks different.
Do these knowledge workers ever leave mobile devices unprotected and unattended at Starbucks? Do they have personal data on their phones when the list them on eBay? Do they click on sites that have invalid security certificates, or click on links emailed by people they don’t recognize?
Do they download apps with little thought of malware, or work from home on unprotected systems and unencrypted networks.
These are all common end-user habits. People are busy, and without some serious training, they won’t spot the clever ruse that comes through the firm’s various levels of security and insecurity.
The Only Reason to Measure Risk…Or You’re Wasting Your Time
The purpose of an assessment was explained in an article I wrote earlier this year – the bottom line is, Assessments should be performed to expose weaknesses, measure risk, and move the company toward remediation (the long tail of security assessments). If your assessments fail to do these three things, you’ve wasted your time.
So, while the misconfigurations (so often found in network devices and server)s are important, understanding the risk (Impact vs. Likelihood) of a user’s mistakes is more important.
Looking at risk, what is the impact of an enduser acting on email infected with spyware or ransomware? It’s extremely high!
How likely are they to act on it by clicking? Again, extremely high.
When the impact and likelihood are both high, the company has a major problem; one that must be addressed.
Take this same concept home or on the road. How likely are end-users (executives, sales people, office workers) to give into just about any social engineering effort – Phishing, infected websites, a fake support call,…? Higher than you can imagine.
You should expect that your client’s office workers are making mistakes every day.
Expect them to be downloading untested apps, letting their kids trade pirated music and videos, accessing high-risk sites such as gaming and porn, and more…
The average teen is probably friending all kids of predators disguised and prepared to steal and destroy. Employees regularly email confidential data, store data on personal devices, and use insecure home networks to conduct business. The end-user is the new firewall, and they’re failing.
After all, none of these workers have ever really been trained.
And if they have (through some ill designed, one-off training program) chances are they didn’t really pay attention. The training was probably boring, overly technical, and ineffective.
In the case your prospect company did bring in someone entertaining, or use one of the few attention-grabbing programs out there, everything they learned was out of date (or forgotten) within a month.
Remember, hackers are creative, stealth, and always one step ahead of the good guys. Training needs to be a high priority and frequently updated/repeated.
What’s At Stake? Your Prospect’s Most Valuable Assets
Looking at your client’s most important assets, it used to be the people. No longer.
Data is the most important asset. Everything your client does is digital. The money, the R&D, the customer lists, the strategies and processes; everything.
There are three areas to consider; confidentially, integrity, and availability.
Anything that would expose confidential data, affect the integrity of the business’s information, or reduce the reliability or performance of the company’s computer systems is at risk.
When building the impact vs. likelihood graph, (Find out more in my book, The House & The Cloud) your first consideration is assets. Which applications and what data represent the greatest negative impact to the business, if made unavailable, corrupted, or exposed (to other governments or organizations, hackers, or the competition)?
What’s at stake? Loss of shareholder value and customer confidence, competitive advantage, operational efficiencies, quality, and perhaps fines or lawsuits for non-compliance. The cost of any breach, according to Thomas Norman, is about 20X the cost of remediating that one threat!
So when a company refuses to secure something, in order to save $100,000, they can expect to spend about $2 Million on recovery when a “Boom” (the industry term for disaster) occurs.
Second, consider the likelihood. The client needs a metric to understand their risk – and it can’t be three colors. These RED, YELLOW, GREEN system is over used, and of little value. CFO’s don’t approve large security budgets just because your report has a RED light on it.
Correcting The Course – How to Include People In Your Assessment
Security awareness training, like policy (the other root cause of security disasters according to Norman), should be a primary consideration when assessing risk. If the user/operator of a mission critical system is highly likely to cause disaster (through ignorance or an act of vengeance) it should be noted in the findings.
A few things to consider in your next assessment:
Make Time For People Interviews.
There’s no point in scanning networks and looking for patches and open ports if you’re not going to assess risk. The chances of that company actually taking action on your remediation steps are nearly zero. Build interviews into your assessment process, both with executives and end-users.
On the executive side, you need to know what they believe are their most mission critical systems. You’ll want to know what data matters, what applications are core to the business, and how much risk can be tolerated.
Find out who would want certain data, or what impact a down system would have on the profits and customers, for any given length of time.
Remember, IT can’t answer these questions. There are too many variables. Pending lawsuits, product announcements, M&A actives, and the competitive landscape all play a role in data asset value – it’s a moving target.
Once you know what really matters, it’s time to talk to their end-users. You want to understand their workflow; how and when data is created, used, transmitted, and stored. How about data disposal?
You also want to know how much these knowledge workers know about security. Is email encryption just an option on their email application, or are workers forced to comply with corporate security policies?
Do employees use personal devices, and do they understand how these handy devices are compromised, or what happens to data when they sell their iPhone of tablet online?
A security quiz issued to a sample population would be perfect (I’ve never seen this done – but it makes sense. A quiz would certainly set you apart from your competition).
There’s a lot more to cover when discussing risk assessment process. However, these ideas concerning end-users awareness, and likelihood of enabling a disaster, are a great place to begin.
Copyright 2017, David Stelzl