Straight talk on security gets employees to listen -- and comply

From phishing your own employees to sharing your company's hack history, these techniques can help you get -- and keep -- users' attention about security.

The statistics are staggering: Last year, Symantec blocked more than 5.5 billion malware attacks, an 81% increase over 2010, and reported a 35% increase in Web-based attacks and a 41% increase in new malware variants. Those findings, documented in the company's latest annual "Internet Security Threat Report," might cause IT leaders to wonder if they're doing everything possible to protect their organizations.

And well they should. Security folks, in struggling to establish policies and procedures that are both effective and easy to implement, often forget a crucial step, experts say: communicating their security goals effectively, so that employees not only follow the security procedures but also understand the reason for having a security policy and embrace its goals.

"Compliance is necessary, but it's not sufficient," says Malcolm Harkins, vice president and chief information security officer at Intel. Harkins' goal is to get employees to go beyond compliance toward full commitment to protecting the company's information. "If they're committed to doing the right thing and protecting the company, and if they're provided with the right information, [then] they'll make reasonable risk decisions."

To be sure, employees don't play a role in every type of corporate security breach (see chart). But user behavior and noncompliance are implicated in many, including mobile malware attacks, social network schemes and advanced target attacks. In the face of such an onslaught, a wall poster of security tips hanging in the break room is useless, says Julie Peeler, foundation director at the International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium -- also known as (ISC)2 -- a global, nonprofit organization that educates and certifies information security professionals.

Managers need to ensure that employees understand the security posture of the company from day one, Peeler says. Employees must be willing to sign confidentiality agreements, attend training and practice ongoing vigilance. "Security training is not a one-time event. It has to be integrated throughout the entire organization, and it has to come from the top," she says.

Here's a look at five best practices for making information security a corporatewide responsibility.

1. Put Threats Into Context

People don't internalize security best practices by simply being told what to do or by being scared into compliance, Peeler says. And Harkins agrees: "You don't want to spin information security compliance as fear," he says. "Fear is like junk food -- it can sustain you for a bit, but in the long run it's not healthy."

Top 10 Threat Actions Used in Enterprise Attacks

Threat Event

Percentage of Breaches

It's Used In
Stolen login credentials 30%
Backdoor malware 18%
Backdoor or command-and-control channel hacking 17%
Physical tampering 17%
Keylogger/form-grabber/spyware 13%
Pretexting (classic social engineering) 12%
Brute force and dictionary attacks 8%
SQL injection exploits 8%
Phishing (or any type of "ishing") 8%
Command-and-control malware 8%
Source: Analysis of 855 confirmed organizational data breaches investigated in 2011 by Verizon RISK Team or one of its international forensic partners in its 2012 Data Breach Investigations Report. Totals exceed 100% because incidents often involve multiple threat events.
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