Top of the iceberg: politicians’ private email accounts and shadow IT

In CISO circles the term “shadow IT” is commonly used for when employees use private accounts, devices and networks to conduct work outside of the company’s IT policies. People often do this because they feel they don’t have the freedom to get the job done within the rules.

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If you deny your people a well-stacked toolbox, they will bring their own. That may not be the best solution for your security. 

This is not only for low-level clerks and helpdesk ninjas: top level managers are known to do this a lot, including politicians. Hillary Clinton probably lost the presidential election at least partially due to her poor security awareness. Now VP Mike Pence has also been outed as “private email wielding pubic servant” – and he was hacked too. Why do people do this?

Reasons why people do their business in the IT shadows

I’ll nominate 3 main reasons why people tend to use private and unauthorized tools and services in companies and public service. Then let’s look at what we can do about it, because this is a serious expansion of the organization’s attack surface! And we don’t want that, do we?

I believe (based on experience) the 3 main reasons are:

  1. The tools they are provided with are hard to use, impractical or not available
  2. They do not understand the security implications and have not internalized what secure behaviors really are
  3. The always-on culture is making the distinction between “work” and “personal” foggy; people don’t see that risks they are willing to take in their personal lives are also affecting their organizations that typically will have a completely different risk context

How to avoid the shadow IT rabbit hole of vulnerabilities

First of all, don’t treat your employees and co-workers are idiots. IT security is very often about locking everything down and hardening machines and services. If you go too far in this direction you make it very hard for people to do their jobs, and you can end of driving them into the far riskier practices of inventing their own workarounds using unauthorized solutions – like private email accounts. Make sure controls are balanced, and don’t forget that security is there to protect productivity – not as the key product of most organizations. Therefore, your risk governance must ensure:

  • Select risk-based controls – don’t lock everything down by default
  • Provide your employees with the solutions they need to do their jobs
  • Remember that no matter how much you harden your servers, the human factor still remains.

Second, make people your most important security assets. Build a security aware culture. This has to be done by training, by leadership and by grassroots engagement in your organization.

Third, and for now last, disconnect. Allow people to disconnect. Encourage it. Introduce separations between the private and what is work or for your organization. This is important because the threat contexts of the private sphere and the organizational sphere are in most cases very different. This is also the most difficult part of the management equation: allowing flexible work but ensuring there is a divide between “work” and “life”. This is what work-life balance means for security; it allows people to maintain different contexts for different parts of their lives.

 

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