Tipton: IT security starts with the user

User errors now have greater consequences because threats are more sophisticated

When we address information technology security problems, we discover that technology is only part of the solution. The IT industry is adept at providing fixes for vulnerabilities, but that often creates the problem of too many technologies seeking to be silver bullets.

The industry has marketing employees who are experts at identifying problems and offering solutions. We have a healthy fear of attacks that exploit our IT vulnerabilities, so we are motivated to seek solutions quickly and not wait for an architectural solution that could be applied agencywide.

But that attitude leads us to create systems and networks that are not interoperable. When no common architecture exists, organizations must invest in extensive and expensive training in a variety of solutions. In the long run, information systems security suffers and the total cost of ownership skyrockets.

People using computers and the professionals maintaining networks and systems are the source of the problem, which means that training all employees is an essential step in managing an IT security program. Users who are not trained to detect phishing and pharming attacks or spyware can open dangerous backdoors to hackers. You cannot maintain a secure environment when it is layered on top of overworked IT employees who are not up-to-date on system and device patching and who operate without secure system configurations.

But let’s not overlook management’s role. Consider what happens when managers leave IT to the experts and view it simply as administrative overhead. Without a knowledgeable and involved management team, your IT program will be constantly reacting to catastrophes and budgeting nightmares. Historically, the first thing administrators cut during a budget shortfall is training. That practice must be reversed. We need trained people now more than ever.

We have entered a period in which managers and system owners must be aware that their failure to acknowledge the risks involved in conducting business electronically makes them subject to liability — at both the corporate and personal levels. Several lawsuits alleging insufficient protection of personal data have resulted in judgments or settlements.

IT security threats have grown more sophisticated, and their number is expanding exponentially. Security experts are often caught off-guard. Infections are stealthy, and we can no longer be certain that we have completely cleansed a device without rebuilding it — and often the network, too. User errors now have significant consequences.

The next time you get an e-mail message from your boss telling you to open an attachment with a dangerous extension or click on a link to download a white paper, be aware that your boss’ e-mail address might have been “spoofed.”

Good awareness and role-based IT security training can help reduce your risk, but sooner or later you will have an encounter. Have a remediation plan ready.

Tipton is the Interior Department’s chief information officer. He is also a member of the board of directors of the International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium.

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