Shadow IT: Balancing Efficiency with Security

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Shadow IT: Balancing Efficiency with Security

With great access comes great responsibility, especially with regard to IT security policies. In recent months, discussions around security have evolved to include the growing risks associated with Shadow IT. While the practice of Shadow IT has existed since computing became a staple of the workplace and tech-savvy employees started skirting the rules, the risks of Shadow IT have skyrocketed with the exponential rise of mobile devices and cloud technology.

Shadow IT is greatly propelled by cloud services, where individual employees or work groups within a company deploy these solutions without the approval of their IT department, or without following established security policies.

These apps are easy to install and many employees don’t understand how their behavior can jeopardize the security of the company. This is especially true of millennial employees who, as digital natives, are often perceived as technically proficient despite evidence to the contrary.

Convenience is frequently the motivating factor when an employee decides to bypass IT. If installing a non-approved app will help them get their job done more effectively—and going through sanctioned channels is seen as too complicated or unlikely to result in a positive outcome—then asking for forgiveness becomes easier than asking for permission.

It also doesn’t help that few organizations have a formal policy in place that publicizes white- and black-listed apps internally. With this direction, employees believe they are simply enhancing their productivity without understanding the potential consequences.

Mobile growth has compounded the issue further, as employees seek new ways to bring their work with them out of the office and off the local network. Cloud applications streamline this process, by making data available from any location and device. But what happens when the application has a backdoor that can be used by an attacker to access the corporate network? With network access and data, now accessible through an unauthorized application, and often with IT none the wiser, the risk to the organization is immeasurable.

Considering more than half of employees use two or more work devices, the potential for a data breach increases significantly, as each device becomes a new potential point of entry for attackers.

While CIOs undoubtedly recognize that unauthorized applications are in use in their organization, most CIOs can often underestimate the extent. In a typical enterprise, there are 15 to 20 times more unauthorized cloud applications in use than estimated by their IT department. As company data flows through these applications, tracking that data to ensure that it remains safeguarded becomes impossible. Often this flouting of security can happen just as often within the IT department.

According the results of our recent report, 45% of IT professionals admit to knowingly circumventing security policies at their workplace, while 33% say they have successfully hacked either their own company or that of another organization. Clearly policies related to Shadow IT need to be inclusive of those with privileged access.

All these findings support the idea that a company’s greatest vulnerability is the insider threat.  Bad behavior, human error and social engineering are often at the root of data breaches, and with Shadow IT, these actions can occur either on or off the corporate network, with the same devastating consequences. However, while the threat is rooted in people, so is the solution.

In responding to Shadow IT, companies can start by listening to their employees to learn what they need and provide more corporately-approved options based on that information. With the right tools on offer, a company can curb rogue app installations while increasing productivity.

Educating employees about data security will also help them make informed decisions. Training workshops and security policies can set clear expectations for employees while outlining the real-world consequences of exposing corporate data. Identifying the applications that are supported (or not) is another way to keep the message current and employees informed. Within the IT department, oversight must be maintained over all corporate networks, devices, and data. If a security incident occurs, IT should have a formal response plan in place so that the threat can be swiftly neutralized.  Automated alerts and tools that can be used to remotely freeze or disable compromised endpoints are an essential component of this type of remediation strategy.

Organizations can also contain the risk of Insider Threats by closing gaps in existing vulnerabilities. According to a Forbes Insights report, known vulnerabilities are the leading cause of data breaches, accounting for 44 percent of all incidents. A critical step in remediation is to improve the ability to prioritize and fill these security holes which will ultimately reduce your organization’s overall attack surface.

Regardless of whether companies see Shadow IT as a problem to be eliminated or an opportunity to improve practices within an organization, a response is imperative in order to reduce corporate risk.

About the Author

Eric Aarrestad is the Senior Vice President of Product Management for Absolute and can be reached at www.absolute.com or eaarrestad@absolute.com.

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