How to talk security so people will listen (and comply!)

From phishing your own employees to sharing your company's hack history, here are five techniques for getting users' attention about security.

man at whiteboard

The statistics are staggering: Last year, Symantec blocked a total of over 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 variants of malware.

If those findings, documented in the company's latest annual Internet Security Threat Report, cause IT leaders to wonder if they've done everything possible to protect their companies, they might consider looking in the mirror.

That's because security folks, in struggling to establish policies and procedures that are both effective and easy to use, often forget a third and crucial step, experts say: Communicating their security goals in such a way that the broad corporate population not only understands but responds.

"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 are not involved in every type of corporate security breach (see Top 10 threat action types), but user behavior and non-compliance are implicated in many, including mobile malware, social network schemes and advanced target attacks. These are increasingly aimed not at CEOs and senior staffers, but at people in other job functions such as sales, HR, administration and media/public relations, as criminals try for "lower-hanging fruit," the Symantec report says.

Against such an onslaught, the stereotypical wall poster of security tips hanging in the breakroom is useless, says Julie Peeler, foundation director at the International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium -- also known as (ISC)² -- a global, non-profit organization that educates and certifies information security professionals. "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.

When it comes to talking security in a way that users will listen, managers need to ensure that employees understand the security posture of the company from day one, Peeler says. They must be willing to sign confidentiality agreements, attend training and participate in ongoing awareness, all with the goal of remaining vigilant.

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Top 10 threat actions used against larger enterprises

(by percent of breaches affected)

Rank Variety Category Breaches
1 Use of stolen login credentials Hacking 30%
2 Backdoor (allows remote access/control) Malware 18%
3 Exploitation of backdoor or command and control channel Hacking 17%
4 Tampering Physical 17%
5 Keylogger/Form-grabber/Spyware Malware 13%
6 Pretexting (classic social engineering) Social 12%
7 Brute force and dictionary attacks Hacking 8%
8 SQL injection Hacking 8%
9 Phishing (or any type of "ishing") Social 8%
10 Command and control (listens for and executes commands) Malware 8%
Analysis of 855 confirmed organizational data breaches investigated in 2011 by Verizon or one of its international forensic partners: the United States Secret Service (USSS), the Dutch National High Tech Crime Unit, the Australian Federal Police, the Irish Reporting & Information Security Service and the Police Central e-Crime Unit of the London Metropolitan Police. Totals exceed 100% as incidents often involve multiple threat events. Source: Verizon RISK Team: 2012 Data Breach Investigations Report
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