Op-ed: The Human Side of Cyber Threats


An agency’s biggest data security vulnerability is its employees.

The escalation of advanced persistent threats to federal systems has cybersecurity leaders rethinking their network protection and risk mitigation strategies. Nearly 50,000 incidents were reported by agencies in fiscal 2012, a 5 percent increase over the previous year.

The Obama administration’s response to these threats underscores the danger of cyberattacks. A February executive order, for instance, mandated the development of a framework to protect the nation’s critical infrastructure from such threats, and President Obama’s fiscal 2014 budget proposal calls for an $800 million increase in Defense Department spending on cybersecurity.

The increase in threat activity points to an uncomfortable reality: There is no such thing as absolute safety. Systems will continue to be breached, even as agencies comply with new requirements under the 2002 Federal Information Security Management Act. Information security leaders are expected to stay ahead of the curve by launching mature security controls, comprehensive incident response processes and better continuous monitoring technology. But for agencies, the biggest security vulnerability is their employees.

A fiscal 2012 report to Congress measuring FISMA capabilities across government reveals a significant drop in computer security training compliance. This decline is particularly troubling because data breaches often are attributed to employees’ noncompliance with protocols.

Agencies face two major hurdles in shoring up the human element of cybersecurity: employee behaviors and security staffers’ skills. Information security officials must build awareness about appropriate behavior online and train their teams to help agency staffers make better decisions.

An information security team can put the most advanced technical controls in place, but those measures are futile if employees don’t follow them. According to survey data from CEB, a member-based business advisory company, on average, employees demonstrate a tendency to practice insecure behavior 22 percent of the time -- that figure approaches 40 percent at some organizations. More than 90 percent of employees surveyed acknowledged occasionally violating security policies, and 52 percent said they do so routinely. The ability to improve that behavior is fundamental to an organization’s ability to manage risk.

The most successful security managers seek to understand the rationale behind employee behaviors so they can focus on the riskiest users and determine their reasons for noncompliance. They also tailor messaging campaigns to specific groups of employees, since risky behavior varies based on characteristics like work roles and seniority. Done right, awareness campaigns can yield quick results. CEB research shows computer users who receive messages that incorporate a logo and a consistent look and feel, for example, are more likely to remember and act on those communications.

Major changes in the business and technology environments are making traditional security approaches obsolete. Workers are increasingly obtaining and managing technology for themselves. The consumerization of IT also has disrupted the security design model. According to CEB, 64 percent of employees regularly use personal technologies for work, making reliance on “just say no” technical controls to mitigate threats unsustainable.

To respond to these shifts, security teams must stop owning all risk decisions and instead facilitate decision-making by the true risk owners -- business partners. More than 85 percent of chief information security officers envision a significant increase in the importance of security capabilities that deliver business value over the next year, according to CEB research. At the same time, CISOs are dissatisfied with their team’s ability to effectively support business needs -- approximately 70 percent of CISOs say their staff lacks the communication, persuasion, business, analytical and relationship-building skills necessary to meet the job’s future demands.

Many CISOs have created a liaison position to serve as a point of contact between business operations and the security team. Organizations that successfully use a liaison align that person with a few critical decision-makers in the organization and target areas where the riskiest activities occur. Instead of focusing on building friendly relationships, the liaison’s role is to challenge the assumptions and decisions of business leaders in addressing security protocols. This allows chief decision-makers in the organization to make the appropriate trade-offs, which in turn strengthens the security liaison’s role. CEB research shows that 54 percent of “challenger” liaisons are high performers in higher-complexity environments, compared with just 4 percent of those who focus on building relationships. 

As cyberattacks continue to increase, many agencies are neglecting the importance of their employees in combating threats. By concentrating on awareness campaigns and developing the skills of security staffs, CISOs are more likely to diminish harmful data breaches.

Audrey Taylor is a senior director and Ben Knopf is a senior analyst in CEB’s Government practice, where they support chief information officers and their leadership teams.