Why Security Matters Now

Today's most compelling technologies are giving you the biggest security headaches. Social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn enhance collaboration and help your company connect with customers, but they also make it easier than ever for your employees to share customer data and company secrets with outsiders.

Virtualization and cloud computing let you simplify your physical IT infrastructure and cut overhead costs, but you've only just begun to see the security risks involved. Putting more of your infrastructure in the cloud has left you vulnerable to hackers who have redoubled efforts to launch denial-of-service attacks against the likes of Google, Yahoo and other Internet-based service providers. A massive Google outage earlier this year illustrates the kind of disruptions cloud-dependent businesses can suffer.

But there's also good news. Even though the worst economic recession in decades has compelled you to spend less on outsourced security services and do more in-house, your security budget is holding steady. And more of you are employing a chief security officer.

Such are the big takeaways from the seventh-annual Global Information Security survey, which CIO and CSO magazines conducted with PricewaterhouseCoopers earlier this year. Nearly 7,300 business and technology executives worldwide responded from a variety of industries, including government, health care, financial services and retail.

To read more on security, see: Twitter Taken Down By Denial-of-Service Attack and Social Networking Malware: Three Ways to Protect Yourself.

See the complete survey results here.

Check out how we got the numbers.

These trends are shaping your information security agenda. "Every company worries about protecting their data, especially their client data," says Charles Beard, CIO at Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC). "Under the old business model, everyone had to get together in the same building in the same geographical area. Now everyone is using the Internet and mobile devices to work with each other. That's where we see the promise of things like social networking. The flip side is we're exposed to the dark side of cyberspace. Adoption of this technology is well ahead of efforts to properly secure and govern it."

Read on to learn what we found.

Top IT Security Priorities

New investments are focused on protecting data, authenticating users

1. Biometrics

2. Web content filters

3. Data leakage prevention

4. Disposable passwords/smart cards/tokens

5. Reduced or single-sign-on software

6. Voice-over-IP security

7. Web 2.0 security

8. Identity management

9. Encryption of removable media

TREND #1

The Promise and Peril of Social Networking

In less than two years, social networking has gone from an abstract curiosity to a way of life for many people. When someone updates their status on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn, they might do it at work by day or on company-owned laptops from home at night.

What gives IT executives heartburn is the ease with which users could share customer data or sensitive company activities while they're telling you what they're having for lunch. Cyberoutlaws know this and use social networks to launch phishing scams. In one popular attack, they send their victims messages that appear to be coming from a Facebook friend. The "friend" may send along a URL they insist you check out. It may be pitched as a news story about Michael Jackson's death or a list of stock tips. In reality, the link takes the victim to a shady website that automatically drops malware onto the computer. The malware goes off in search of any valuable data stored on the computer or wider company network, be it customer credit card numbers or the secret recipe for a new cancer-fighting drug.

It's no surprise, then, that every IT leader surveyed admitted they fear social-engineering-based attacks. Forty-five percent specifically fear the phishing schemes against Web 2.0 applications.

Nevertheless, for many company executives, blocking social networking is out of the question because of its potential business benefits. Companies now clamor to get their messages out through these sites, so the challenge for CIOs is to find the right balance between security and usability.

"People are still incredibly naïve about how much they should share with others, and we have to do a better job educating them about what is and isn't appropriate to share," says H. Frank Cervone, vice chancellor of information services with Purdue University Calumet. "We have to do a better job of enhancing our understanding of what internal organization information should not be shared."

But in a university setting, it's critical to engage people through social media, Cervone adds. Even in the commercial sector, he doesn't see how organizations can avoid it.

And yet this year--the first in which we asked respondents about social media, only 23 percent said their security efforts now include provisions to defend Web 2.0 technologies and control what can be posted on social networking sites. One positive sign: Every year, more companies dedicate staff to monitoring how employees use online assets--57 percent this year compared to 50 percent last year and 40 percent in 2006. Thirty-six percent of respondents monitor what employees are posting to external blogs and social networking sites.

To prevent sensitive information from escaping, 65 percent of companies use Web content filters to keep data behind the firewall, and 62 percent make sure they are using the most secure version of whichever browser they choose. Forty percent said that when they evaluate security products, support and compatibility for Web 2.0 is essential.

Unfortunately, social networking insecurity isn't something one can fix with just technology, says Mark Lobel, a partner in the security practice at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

"The problems are cultural, not technological. How do you educate people to use these sites intelligently?" he asks. "Historically, security people have come up from the tech path, not the sociologist path. So we have a long way to go in finding the right security balance."

Guy Pace, security administrator with the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, says his organization takes many of the precautions described above. But he agrees with Lobel that the true battleground is one of office culture, not technology. "The most effective mitigation here is user education and creative, effective security awareness programs," he says.

TREND #2

Jumping into the Cloud, Sans Parachute

Given the expense to maintain a physical IT infrastructure, the thought of replacing server rooms and haphazardly configured appliances with cloud services is simply too hard for many companies to resist. But rushing into the cloud without a security strategy is a recipe for risk.

According to the survey, 43 percent of respondents are using cloud services such as software as a service or infrastructure as a service. Even more are investing in the virtualization technology that helps to enable cloud computing. Sixty-seven percent of respondents say they now use server, storage and other forms of IT asset virtualization. Among them, 48 percent actually believe their information security has improved, while 42 percent say their security is at about the same level. Only 10 percent say virtualization has created more security holes.

Dark Cloud

Fears about vendors dominate cloud security risks.

What is the greatest security risk to your cloud computing strategy?

Ability to enforce provider security policies: 23%

Inadequate training and IT auditing: 22%

Access control at provider site: 14%

Ability to recover data: 12%

Ability to audit provider: 11%

Proximity of company data to someone else's: 10%

Continued existence of provider: 4%

Provider regulatory compliance: 4%

Security may well have improved for some, but experts like Chris Hoff, director of cloud and virtualization solutions at Cisco Systems, believe that both consumers and providers need to ensure they understand the risks associated with the technical, operational and organizational changes these technologies bring to bear.

"When you look at how people think of virtualization and what it means, the definition of virtualization is either very narrow--that it's about server consolidation, virtualizing your applications and operating systems, and consolidating everything down to fewer physical boxes--or it's about any number of other elements: client-side desktops, storage, networks, security," he says. "Then you add to the confusion with the concept of cloud computing, which is being pushed by Microsoft and a number of smaller, emerging companies. You're left scratching your head wondering what this means to you as a company. How does it impact your infrastructure?"

Fortunately, there's some evidence of companies proceeding with caution. One example is Atmos Energy, which is using Salesforce.com to speed its response time to customers and help the marketing department manage a growing pool of clients, according to CIO Rich Gius.

The endeavor is successful thus far, so Gius is investigating the viability of running company e-mail in the cloud. "It would help us address the growing challenge where e-mail-enabled mobile devices like BlackBerrys are proliferating widely among the workforce," he says. But he's not ready to take such a big step because the risks, including security, remain hard to pin down. One example of the disruption that cloud-dependent companies can experience came in May, when search giant Google--whose content accounts for 5 percent of all Internet traffic--suffered a massive outage. When it went down, many companies that have come to rely on its cloud-based business applications (such as e-mail) were dead in the water.

The outage wasn't caused by hackers, but there are signs that cybercriminals are exploring ways to exploit the cloud for malicious purposes. On the heels of the outage, attackers added insult to injury by flooding Google search results with malicious links, prompting the U.S. Computer Emergency Response Team (U.S. CERT) to issue a warning about potential dangers to cloud-based service sites.

The attack poisoned several thousand legitimate websites by exploiting known flaws in Adobe software to install a malicious program on victims' machines, U.S. CERT says. The program would then steal FTP login credentials from victims and use the information to spread itself further. It also hijacked the victim's browser, replacing Google search results with links chosen by the attackers. Although the victimized sites were not specifically those offering cloud-based services, similar schemes could be directed at cloud services providers.

IT organizations often make an attacker's job easier by configuring physical and cloud-based IT assets so poorly that easy-to-find-and-exploit flaws are left behind. Asked about the potential vulnerabilities in their virtualized environments, 36 percent cited misconfiguration and poor implementation, and 51 percent cited a lack of adequately trained IT staff (whose lack of knowledge leads to configuration glitches). In fact, 22 percent of respondents cited inadequate training, along with insufficient auditing (to uncover vulnerabilities) to be the greatest security risk to their company's cloud computing strategy.

It's this awareness that makes Atmos Energy's Gius proceed with caution. "We have no CSO. If we were a financial services firm it might be a different story, or if we had a huge head count," Gius says. "But we are a small-to-medium-sized company, and the staff limitations make these kinds of implementations more difficult."

Even with the right resources, security in the cloud is a matter of managing a variety of risks across multiple platforms. There's no single cloud. Rather, "there are many clouds, they're not federated, they don't natively interoperate at the application layer and they're all mostly proprietary in their platform and operation," Hoff says. "The notion that we're all running out to put our content and apps in some common [and secure] repository on someone else's infrastructure is unrealistic."

Lobel, with PricewaterhouseCoopers, says perfect security is not possible. "You have to actively focus on the security controls while you are leaping to these services," he says. It's difficult for companies to turn back once they have let their data and applications loose because they are often quick to rid themselves of the hardware and skills they would need to bring the services back in-house.

"If you dive down a well without a rope, you may find the water you wanted, but you're not going to get out of the well without the rope," he says. "What if you have a breach and you need to leave the cloud? Can you get out if you have to?"

Trend #3

Insourcing Security Management

A few years ago, technology analysts were predicting unlimited growth for managed security service providers (MSSPs). Many companies then viewed security as a foreign concept, but laws such as Sarbanes-Oxley, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act and the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (affecting financial services) were forcing them to address intrusion defense, patch management, encryption and log management.

Data Dangers

Attacks on data have increased faster than any other security exploit. The top target: databases.

How Attackers Get Your Data

Databases: 57%

File-sharing applications: 46%

1 2 Page
Insider: How the basic tech behind the Internet works
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies