Users: from threats to security enhancers?

Security should be an organization-wide effort. That means getting everyone to play the same game, requiring IT to stop thinking about “users as internal threats”, and start instead to think about “internal customers as security enhancers”. This can only be achived by using balanced security measures, involving the internal customers (users) through sharing the risk picture, and putting risk based thinking behind security planning to drive rational and balanced decisions. For many organiations with a pure compliance focus this can be a challenging journey – but the rewards at the end is an organization better equipped to tackle a dynamic threat landscape. 

Users have traditionally been seen as a major threat in information security settings. The insider threat is a very real thing but this does not mean that the user is the threat as such. There has recently been much discussion about how we can achieve a higher degree of cybersecurity maturity in organizations, and whether cybersecurity awareness training really works. This post does not give you the answers but describes some downsides to the compliance oriented tradition. The challenge is to find a good balance between controls and compliance on one side, and driving a positive security culture on the other.


Locking down users’ tools too much may enhance security on paper – until you you consider the effect of trust erosion on the human attack surface. When knowledge workers feel they are not trusted by their organization, they also feel undervalued, something that can create hostility towards management in general, and cybersecurity policies specifically. There is no fun working in an environment where all the toys are locked down. 

Most accidents involve “human error” as part of the accident chain, pretty much like most security breaches also involve some form of human error, typically a user failing to spot a social engineering attempt where the security technology is also inept at making good protection decisions. Email is still the most common malware delivery method, and phishing would not work without humans on the other end. This picture is what your security department is used to seeing; the user performs some action that allows the attacker to penetrate the organization. Hence, the user is a threat. The cure for this is supposed to be cyberscurity awareness training teaching users not to open attachments from sketchy sources, not to click those links, not to use weak passwords and so on. The problem is just that this only partially works. Some people have even gone so far as to say that this is completely useless.

The other part of the story is the user that reports his or her computer is misbehaving, or that some resoures have become unavailable, or forwards spear-phishing attempts. Those users are complying with policy and allowing the organization to spot potential attempts of recon or attack before the fact, or at least realtively soon after a breach. These users are security enhancers, in the way security awareness training is trying to at least make users a little bit less dangerous.

Because people do risky things when possible, the typical IT department answer to the insider threat is to lock down every workstation as much as possible, to “harden it”, ie making the attack surface smaller. This attack surface view, however, only considers the technology, not the social component. If you lock down the systems more than what is felt necessary by the users, they will probably start opposing company policies. They will not be reporting suspicious activities as often anymore. They will go through the motions of your awareness training but little behavioral change is seen afterwards. You risk that shadow IT starts to take a hold of your business – that employees use their private cloud accounts, portable apps or private computers to do their jobs – because the tools they feel they need to do their jobs are locked down, made inflexible or simply unavailable by the IT department in order to “reduce the attack surface”. So, not only are you risking to prime your employees for social engineering attacks (angry employees are easier to manipulate), making your staff less able to benefit from your training courses, but you may also be significantly increasing the technical attack surface through shadow IT.

So what is the solution – to allow users to do whatever they want on the network, give the admin rights and no controls? Obviously a bad idea. Keywords are balanced measures, involvement and risk based thinking.

  • Balanced: there must be a balance between security and productivity. A full lockdown may be required for information objects of high value to the firm and with credible attack scenarios, but not every piece of data and every operation is in that category.
  • Involvement: people need to understand why security measures are in place to make sense of the measures. Most security measures are impractical to people just wanting to get the job done. Understanding the implications of a breach and the cost-benefit ratio of the measures in place greatly helps people motivate themselves to do what feels slightly impractical.
  • Risk based thinking: measures must be adequate to the risk posed to the organization and not exaggerated. The risk picture must be shared with the employees as part of the security communication – this is a core leadership responsibility and the foundation of security aware cultures.

In the end it comes down to respect. Respect other people for what they do, and what value they bring to the organization. Think of them as customers instead of users. Only drug dealers and IT departments refer to their customers as users (quoted from somewhere forgotten on the internet).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s