Government tests show security's people problem

Study says government workers installed USB drives found in parking lots; readily gave passwords to faux support personnel

It was widely reported last week that as part of a study, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) randomly dropped USB and optical drives in government and private contractor parking lots -- and more than half of those who picked one up readily plugged it into their work computer.

Bloomberg News reported that 60% of those workers and contractors who picked up the drives plugged them into office computers. The report also said that 90% of found drives stamped with official government logos were plugged in.

The DHS this week refuted the news reports, as well as denying that a "full report" would be published later this year.

A spokesman confirmed that studies were published by the Idaho National Laboratory last year, but they were not performed for the DHS. A primary study found that 20% of employees who picked up a drive plugged them into work computers -- not 60% as had been reported. After being educated on security precautions, only 2% of employees who picked up a drive in a follow-up study plugged it into an office computer.

Whatever the results, the studies are a reminder that more often than not, employees ignoring sound security practices is at the heart of many a security breach.

Experts don't dispute that employees should pick up dropped drives, but then they should know the procedure for turning them into a corporate or agency security officer or reasonable facsimile rather than install them on their computers.

"If you've got a thumb drive sitting in parking lot, you've got to wonder: did another employees drop this? By picking it up, you prevent data loss," said Mark Rasch, director of network security and privacy consulting for Computer Sciences Corp. (CSC).

Researchers from the Idaho National Laboratory left 50 infected USB thumb drives in parking lots, around picnic tables, and on sidewalks.

Once plugged into a computer, the flash drives would "call home," allowing the researchers to take count of how many were used.

The researchers also delivered phishing emails to workers and counted how many users clicked on the fake URL, and placed calls from purported tech support people seeking passwords.

The results of the study were eye-opening: twenty percent of retrieved thumb drives were plugged in; 22% of employees clicked on a URL in the phishing email; and a whopping 40% of employees provided passwords to the IT support imposter.

Following an initial test, employees attended security training sessions.

Then a year after completing the first study, the researchers tried again. For the most part, the results of the second test were disappointing.

On a positive note, only 2% of those who picked up an infected USB drive installed in on a computer.

However, 21% of employees were fooled by the phishing email -- just 1% less than in the initial test. Worse, the percentage of employees who provided passwords to fake IT support personnel climbed from 40% to 43%.

Rasch, who once ran the U.S. Justice Department's computer crime unit, said chief security officers need to take a three-pronged approach to security that includes training, creating processes and installing technology.

Employees need to first understand the possible consequences of ignoring security threats. Agencies and companies must provide a process for reporting threats and technologies that can be used to thwart them.

Rasch also suggested that organizations use a carrot and stick approach to incent employees to follow security measures. For example, there should be a punishment imposed for plugging an infected USB drive into a business computer. Likewise, employees who turn in an infected drive should be rewarded.

"The point is that while education helps, it's not going to solve the problem. There will always be someone who doesn't get the message, or someone who will do [wrong] despite getting the message," Rasch said.

"And training often has short staying power," he added. "Someone may remember one particular threat, but they may not pick up on a slightly different one."

Overall, though, Rasch believes hackers pose the biggest security threat to governments and corporations.

For instance, to get employees to pick up infected thumb drives, a cybercrook has to be brazen enough to walk or drive through a parking lot that likely has security cameras. Then at least one employee must find the drive and decide to use it.

"That's difficult to do from 1,200 miles away, unlike hacking," Rasch said.

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian, or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His e-mail address is

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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