The top 10 security land mines

Companies can actually worsen their risks by failing to take these commonsense approaches to security

Many companies spend a small fortune and deploy a small army to secure themselves from the many security threats lurking these days. But all those efforts can come to naught when making any of these common mistakes. The results can range from embarrassing to devastating, but security experts say that all are easily avoidable.

And almost all can be done without spending one more dime.

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Here are the 10 most common security land mines that experts say you need to avoid.

1. A slip of the finger reveals the company secret
Many of the most prevalent security issues are the result of small technological habits that can easily be avoided.

For instance, imagine how many inadvertent data loss events could be eliminated if more users were instructed to turn off the e-mail address "autofill" feature in Microsoft Outlook and other messaging systems, said Steve Roop, senior director of marketing and products at Symantec.

"When employees are quickly addressing their e-mails, they inadvertently tab and select the wrong name in haste. The employee thinks he is sending an e-mail internally to Eric Friendly, but autofill instead sent it to Eric Foe," Roop said. "We've all done this. [But] if the e-mail contained sensitive data about a proposed merger or acquisition, then the secret is out."

As much as 90 percent of all information leakage events are tied to inadvertent e-mail foibles, including the autofill accidents and mistakes in handling encryption or misinterpreting usage policies, Roop said. Just the simple act of turning off something like autofill could save businesses a lot of headaches at no extra cost, he said.

2. People give away passwords and other secrets without thinking
More often than not, users -- not outside intruders -- are responsible for coughing up the passwords and personal data that allow attackers to break into their computers and their employer's networks to wreak havoc and tarnish their names.

Despite all the education people have been given about phishing, spyware programs, and hacked Web sites, many users are still willing to hand out their data whenever it is requested without checking to ensure that they aren't be duped or misled, said Dave Marcus, security research and communications manager at McAfee. "People assume the legitimacy of sites as presented; this is fundamentally incorrect in a Web world," Marcus said. "The easiest way to steal someone's identity online is simply to ask them for it."

3. A trusted partner ends up not being so trustworthy with your data
Another common security error is found among users who assume that it is fine to send sensitive information such as human resources data to business partners or outsourcing services providers, Roop said. This land mine is made worse when the messages are sent unencrypted.

"The land mine is making the assumption that the person at the HR outsourcer isn't going to send the spreadsheet anywhere else or store the data improperly on their unsecured laptop," he said. "This land mine is true whenever sensitive data is shared via e-mail as part of a business process with third parties."

4. Web-based apps can be portals to leaks and thieves
A common behavior that leads to a lot of security problems includes the use of Webmail or allowing workers to access music-downloading and file-sharing services from the company network, said Marcus.

Such Web-based apps bypass your security filters, as in the case of Webmail, or open a channel to the outside that may carry viruses or worse into your organization.

And if your employees take work home, these risks are magnified. If they use your computers and also do personal activities over the Web, those computers could be compromised, Marcus said. If they bring the data home -- via e-mail or a thumb drive -- they risk it getting lost or stolen.

All of these problems can be avoided fairly easily through enforcement of policies that require the use of secure mail clients over VPNs or encrypted channels (in the case of e-mail), or not allowing users to install apps on their work computer or copy data to removable media (in the case of taking work home). Much of this can be managed through security policies and systems management apps. One difficult channel to block is the use by employees of e-mail to send themselves data, though encryption can help.

5. Hoping the worse doesn’t happen only makes it worse
Nobody wants to have a data breach, but you need to act as if one will, advised Kevin Mandia, chief executive of Mandiant, which specializes in post-breach analysis services and software tools. Every organization can take steps to lessen the impact of a breach once it happens. Unfortunately, most companies wait until it is too late to test or even create their response strategies, he said.

Every company should record the data flow, from who had access when to what systems used the data. But few do, Mandia said. "There's no question, the most common error we see is failure to document what happened," he said. "People hire us and the first thing we ask for is any related documentation that people already have. Most often, people will hand terabytes of data and no formal documentation. Technicians stink at it, and lawyers don't mandate it. So in almost every incident, we go in and ask them what happened and the response is the sound of crickets chirping."

6. Avoiding or diluting response leadership makes breaches worse
Companies also seriously inhibit their ability to respond to breaches by failing to appoint a single leader or small team to spearhead efforts to respond to incidents and chase down important details.

In many firms, the process devolves into a game of pass-the-buck, while others involve so many people in the breach response effort that they actually become a hindrance to the related investigation.

"We often respond and no one is in charge, no one wants to be, and as a result, no one knows what dedication of resources to give the incident in terms of money, tools, or technologies, and no one person individually can balance their day job with the amount of resources needed to handle a major incident," Mandia said.

"On the flip side, some companies now bring too many people to the decision-making table while still trying to respond. We show up and we're immediately briefing 12 people -- and 10 don't need to be there," he said.

7. Handling breach details sloppily tips off the perp
Another common problem is that companies typically fail to establish a "need to know" approach to breaches, which makes it harder to carry out baseline investigations as workers find out about an incident and immediately try to protect their own interests.

If insiders are involved in the problem, they also gain the advantage of knowing that the gig is up and may stop telltale behavior useful to investigators — and often try to cover their tracks, Mandia said.

8. Trusting "silver bullet" technology hides real threats
As regulatory measures that involve IT and data security interests continue to multiply, businesses have invested a lot in technological solutions to plug the holes. But companies commonly believe that installing a specific technology or meeting some individual aspect of a regulation is a silver bullet or a quick fix. It's neither.

"The biggest problem I see is people thinking that simple things like deploying anti-virus [software], patching, and running vulnerability scans are actually what it means to be compliant. They're not approaching it from a risk management standpoint — they're just checking the boxes," said Mike Rothman, an analyst with Security Incite.

Companies often compound this fools' paradise by auditing their limited security fixes and taking a passing grade as confirmation that no more work is needed. "People often think that once they have a positive audit, they're done," Rothman said. "Then the bad guys prove to them that they're not."

9. Spending unthinkingly wastes resources you might need for important threats
Another compliance-related security trap that companies frequently fall into is spending the same effort or expense to protect IT systems with wildly different levels of importance to their organization's security and success, Rothman said.

"Some people make the mistake of treating all security issues equally, and spend the same amount of time and money defending an old application that only five people use that they spend on an online application used by all of their customers," he said.

That approach not only wastes money, but it also can leave more important problems to later consideration — or maybe none at all, once the budget has dried up. "Security people often don't know how to prioritize," Rothman said. "They should look at what happens if something specific breaks and look at how to drive spending from there."

10. Don't save the wrong data
In another common scenario that spells disaster for both security and compliance interests, many companies that process credit and debit cards inadvertently leave transaction logging systems on that store account information. This logging can lead to customer data breaches and PCI (Payment Card Industry) audit failures.

"Naturally, they don't realize they are storing the data a hacker or malicious employee would need to create fake plastic credit cards," said Symantec's Roop. "This is the cardinal sin of PCI compliance. We actually saw this example at a [recent] prospect. It is a big land mine that most likely will result in a failed PCI audit."

Even companies not collecting card data need to make sure that they only save the information they actively need to do business, Roop said. Keeping anything on hand that could be misused by attackers without a clear need to store that data is asking for trouble, he advised. And if it must be retained, then be sure to build a protection method for it as well.

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