When it comes to security, trust but verify

At this year's Symposium/IT Expo, Gartner analysts say it's time to rethink security

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ORLANDO -- It's time to rethink a bunch of security truisms, Gartner analysts said at the company's annual Symposium/IT Expo here this week.

The security rules companies have relied on for decades are ready for retirement. These include: Prevention is better than cure, humans are the weakest link, and access should be limited to just an employee needs to do his or her job. These old saws have been "exploded" by today's tech trends, said Tom Scholtz, Gartner research vice president.

For one thing, employees are now mobile, digitally literate, embrace new tools without fear and expect access to whatever they need from wherever they're working.

For another, the old rules don't work, and never really did, Scholtz said. Even in a conventional environment, locking down systems to prevent access isn't a good strategy, given the number of hacks and data thefts in recent years. Instead, companies should assume they'll be hacked, and focus on detection and response rather than prevention.

By 2020, Scholtz said, Gartner expects 60% of an organization's security budget to be spent on highly adaptive, context-aware detection and response systems -- up from 10% in 2012. These systems are connected to a company's other major applications, and would be able to, say, understand that a procurement request made at 3 a.m. in Singapore by an employee usually based in London is actually okay.

The security system would check the travel app, see the employee in question had a flight and hotel booked in Singapore, and approve the procurement request. There could be other variables, too: The employee's usual maximum spend might be lowered, or another person's approval could be required when it's typically not.

"All this happens pretty much in real-time," Scholtz said, "and it becomes the basis for a contextual, trust-based security environment." It's adaptive and dynamic, "which is why we're going to spend so much on this stuff."

In the meantime, companies must rethink the basic premise that humans are the weakest security link because "that underestimates the value and potential of human assets," he said. Instead, he urged a people-centric security approach that understands employees have a right to decide what information they need and how much risk to take when using new technology.

The corollary is that employees must be held responsible and accountable. Trust, but verify -- and educate employees that their actions are being watched. If mistakes occur, they will be notified and retrained. And if mistakes keep happening, disciplinary action could follow.

"The traditional approach is to treat 100% of people with suspicion, even though only 2% or 3% misbehave," Scholtz said. "That's probably not the most effective way of going about it."

He acknowledged, however, that only around 10% of organizations are ready to take such a leap and have the cultural maturity for it to work.

As for the third old-school truism -- the default stance of denying access, except where someone decides an employee needs it -- that also has to go, he said. "How do you prevent access to information if you don't even know where the information is?" he asked. It's time to assume everyone needs access to everything, except where the information owners have decided the data cannot be shared for legal reasons, because of HR rules, or regulations.

"Focus on protecting the data that needs it," Scholtz advised.

Other security pointers came from Bob Smock, vice president of security and risk management at Gartner.

  • Not all risk is created equal, he said, nor should it be treated equally.
  • Secure software development, access management and security governance are three of the highest-risk areas in most companies.
  • The three essential questions to answer for security are: How bad is it, what's really broken and must be fixed, and what will it cost?
  • Buy down security exposure through appropriate levels of spending. On average, companies spend around $450/employee on security.
  • Proper identification of weaknesses and consequences is key to how you invest.
  • Information protection requires both strong processes and effective technologies.

In the end, IT leaders "are not the true decision-makers" on security, Smock said. "Our job is to inform senior leadership about the risks, and they can make decisions based on our data."

Just don't continue to rely on the old security basics, Scholtz said. "Digital business represents a huge opportunity, but it also changes the risk position. The traditional approaches just don't scale anymore."

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