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Security 101: The Human Element – “Trust but Verify” August 24, 2011

Posted by Chris Mark in InfoSec & Privacy, Risk & Risk Management.
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As maritime security becomes more lucrative and companies to steps to stop attacks, it is the natural evolution of crime that the pirates will begin looking for new vulnerabilities to support their efforts.  Often the most vulnerable element of any security strategy is the human element.  People often provide the proverbial ‘weak link’ in the strategy.  Often it is not an intentional act by a person that creates and issue.  It could be a simple mistake or the person could be deceived into taking action.  While these are common aspects of security today I want to talk about people that take direct action with intentions that are contrary to the organization.  It not something that any company likes to consider but it is an unfortunate fact of life.  People are rational actors and as such a percentage of any population will be inclined to perform actions that are outside the bounds of what are considered by most to be ethical or moral behavior.   This is where the idea of “trust but verify” comes in.  We all like each other and we all want to believe that we are all honest people.  It is irresponsible however, to simply take people at their word.  It is responsible and appropriate given my access to information.  It is obvious that with increased responsibility comes increased authority.  Often this leads companies to believe that these senior “trusted” individuals do not require the same level of monitoring to which more junior level employees may be subject. This is a serious mistake.  Increased responsibility and authority comes with increased access to information.  It is often these very employees that can do the greatest damage.  I will give an example from my own experience.

Recently through some legal proceedings it was discovered that a former Chief Technology Officer of a company I previously owned had taken steps to download every single employee and contractor’s email to his personal system.  When confronted at the proceeding, he admitted he had indeed downloaded very email.  He then took a number of steps to hide his actions.  His actions were only discovered 2 years later through legal proceedings.  He has not divulged why he took such action.  It should be noted that in many states in the US this is not only a crime but is a felony.  This was not a junior level employee who could plead ignorance.  This was a person with a graduate degree in information security who, by his own admission, “defines security and risk”.  To say I was apoplectic when I discovered his actions would be an understatement.  He not only violated the trust of the company and me personally, but potentially committed a serious crime.  The point of this example is to demonstrate the need to “trust but verify” what ALL employees are doing.

Operational security, or OpSec, is increasingly important in a hyper-competitive world.  Add to that the new threat of information theft by pirates and those supporting piratical acts and the need to protect your information and assets becomes critical.  It is not only the junior level staff that should be monitored and ‘verified’, it is all employees.  Anyone with a security clearance is used to the fact that every few years the Gov’t decides to crawl through your life and put you through a polygraph to ensure that you are still ‘trusted’.  This is a good example of ‘trust but verify’.   When developing a strategy to address information security, and operational security, it is important that all areas of the business are considered and addressed.  Often it is a single trusted person that cause irreparable  harm to the organization.


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