People and processes: The key to effective cybersecurity

People and processes: The key to effective cybersecurity

From management commitment to strategic risk assessment to process change and employee awareness, Alan Calder, founder and executive chairman at IT Governance argues that organisations need to reconsider security and rapidly onboard the skills required to achieve this three-fold approach to mitigating cyber risk.

Cybersecurity investment continues to spiral, with Gartner predicting global security spend will reach £71.72 billion by the end of the year, as a result of regulatory change, mindset and a growing awareness of threats. And with over 40% of UK businesses experiencing some form of cybersecurity attack or breach in the last 12 months, with the attendant cost and reputational damage, it is easy to see how information security teams can argue for ever higher budgets.

But is handing over another tranche of cash really the most effective route to cyber resilience? Look closely at any recent high profile breach and the hack was not achieved through bypassing top of the line security technology but by identifying weaknesses within processes and staff.

Whilst technology certainly has its part to play in a business’ overall cybersecurity strategy, people and processes actually have a much more significant role in ensuring a business is protected.

Weakest link

No organisation is immune to the threat of a cyber attack, especially as the types and methods of attack become increasingly more sophisticated. Given the enormous cost associated with breach, from regulatory fines to lost customers and compromised supplier relationships, this is clearly on the board’s agenda. Unfortunately, most boards would rather commit to hiking the security budget than take the steps actually required to improve cyber resilience: namely, get involved.

According to the ISO 27001 security standard, board level commitment is an essential requirement – yet this is a message that the CIO or CISO is finding hard to get across. Most senior level individuals perceive that cybersecurity is too complex and too technical to have a place in any board meeting. Yet this attitude underlines a patent lack of understanding of the cyber criminal: it is not all about incredibly complex and sophisticated threats, attackers will aim at the weakest link in an organisation’s security posture – its people.

People are a risk because they will forget passwords, make errors, click on phishing emails or access web sites loaded with malware. It is not malicious – in the main – but it is a huge problem. The fact is that the vast majority of breaches are linked to human error – and more often than not, the cause is ill considered processes and education, not inadequate security solutions.

Proving the point

The massive data breach at Sony came about as a result of hackers getting access to the list of passwords written in plain text, essentially an open door to an extraordinary raft of sensitive information.

At Morrison’s, it was a disgruntled employee who was able to upload the details of 99,998 staff, including bank account details, salary information, dates of birth, National Insurance numbers, addresses and phone numbers, to data sharing websites. Having spent more than £2 million tackling the breach, the High Court ruled the supermarket was vicariously liable because the individual was acting in the course of his employment when he leaked the information online.

A lack of management understanding of risk also contributes to technology and process compromises that create unacceptable exposure. The WannaCry ransomware attack that ravaged so many businesses in 2017 is a prime example of poor processes - in this case, failing to update software, creating huge vulnerabilities. The attack affected companies globally, although in the UK the media brunt was borne by the NHS, which estimates a cost of £92 million to recover damaged IT equipment; although it has made no public acknowledgement of the cost to patients’ health as a result of cancelled operations and missed diagnoses.

While these events clearly focus management attention on the escalating risk created by cybersecurity, none of these organisations had failed to invest in security hardware or software. What they had overlooked was that a cyber resilient business is underpinned by highly effective processes and a highly aware and educated staff.

New information security culture

User awareness and education is a huge component of a cyber resilient organisation. Simple steps such as teaching employees to recognise a phishing email or spot a rogue Wi-Fi hotspot at the café, station or conference centre, can radically reduce incidents. But this is just the start: user awareness and training must be part of a complete resilience process.

Continually testing staff awareness – by sending phishing emails and following up with additional training to those who mistakenly click on the email – is essential, but staff also need to know what to do if they do click on a phishing email by mistake. And that means the company needs to put in place a clearly defined process that encompasses everything from ensuring users recognise the importance of immediately notifying the incident response team, to locking down the device and removing it from the network, and critically, undertaking an assessment to determine whether the incident has created a regulatory reportable breach.

In addition to improving awareness and understanding, it is also important to make life easy for the user. While IT has become obsessed with the concept of complex passwords changed every sixty to ninety days, for the user the only option is to write these down – or continually waste time calling the help desk for a reset.  

How much more effective to opt for single sign in and passwords changed only when the user perceives a risk? Or once a year? Not only does the business lose the massive risk associated with passwords written down everywhere, but the help desk calls plummet – and the IT team has time to fix the gaping security hole left by the disturbing number of network devices still operating on easily breached default settings!

Security standards

This people and process model is at the heart of the global ISO 27001 security standard – a standard which in this post GDPR era is prompting increasing interest as a way of demonstrating the security provision in place should a breach occur.

And, to circle back to where we came in, this is where the board needs to get involved: ISO 27001 states that management must be engaged in the information security management process; they must lead by example and provide clear guidance to the organisations on issues such as risk management. That means that security is not just a line on the budget and a chance to pass the buck to the information security management team; the board must actively discuss and consider security policy is certification is to be achieved.

And, to be frank, the board should be actively involved. The creation of a cyber resilience framework is key not only to reducing the likelihood of a breach but also to ensure systems can get back up and running as quickly as possible to minimise business disruption – and that framework is ultimately defined and directed by a corporate understanding of risk.

Simply accepting an ever increasing security cost is not enough. It is not until the board has discussed and agreed upon the risk appetite, which will vary significantly between organisations, that the business can begin to take the correct steps towards managing information security – and that means investing in the right skills to define and implement new processes and staff awareness.