Data: a protected asset or a ticking time bomb?

Paul Boughton

Despite a growing number of data breaches occurring under the glare of the public spotlight, 71% of employees in a new survey report that they have access to data they should not see, and more than half say that this access is frequent or very frequent.

As attention shifts from sophisticated external attacks to the role that internal vulnerability and negligence often play, a new survey commissioned by Varonis Systems Inc and conducted by the Ponemon Institute suggests that most organisations are having difficulty balancing the need for improved security with employee productivity demands.

Employees with needlessly excessive data access privileges represent a growing risk for organisations due to both accidental and conscious exposure of sensitive or critical data.

The survey report, Corporate Data: A Protected Asset or a Ticking Time Bomb? is derived from interviews conducted in October 2014 with 2,276 employees in the United States, United Kingdom, France, and Germany. Respondents included 1,166 IT practitioners and 1,110 end users in organisations ranging in size from dozens to tens of thousands of employees, in a variety of industries including financial services, public sector, health & pharmaceutical, retail, industrial, and technology and software.

Dr Larry Ponemon, Chairman and Founder of The Ponemon Institute, a leading research center dedicated to privacy, data protection and information security policy, observed: “Data breaches are rampant and increasing. The sheer growth of both digital information and our dependence on it can overwhelm organisations’ attempts to protect their sensitive data. This research surfaces an important factor that is often overlooked: employees commonly have too much access to data, beyond what they need to do their jobs, and when that access is not tracked or audited, an attack that gains access to employee accounts can have devastating consequences.

Both IT practitioners and end users are witnessing a lack of control over employee access and use of company data, and the two groups generally concur that their organisations would overlook security risks before they would sacrifice productivity. 

Only 22% of employees surveyed believe their organisations as a whole place a very high priority on the protection of company data, and less than half of employees believe their organisations strictly enforce security policies related to use of and access to company data.

Further, the proliferation of business data is already negatively impacting productivity − making it harder for employees to find data they truly need and should be able to access, and to share appropriate data with customers, vendors and business partners.

Other key findings on control and oversight include:

* 71% of end users say that they have access to company data they should not be able to see;

* 54% of those end users who have access they should not characterise that access as frequent or very frequent;

* 4 in 5 IT practitioners (80%) say their organisations do not enforce a strict least-privilege (or need-to-know) data model;

* Only 22% of employees say their organisation is able to tell them what happened to lost data, files or emails;

* 48% of IT practitioners say they either permit end users to use public cloud file sync services or permission is not required;

* 73% of end users believe the growth of emails, presentations, multimedia files and other types of company data has very significantly or significantly affected their ability to find and access data;

* 43% of end users say it takes weeks, months or longer to be granted access to data they request access to in order to do their jobs, and only 22% report that access is typically granted within minutes or hours;

* 60% of IT practitioners say it is very difficult or difficult for employees to search and find company data or files they or their co-workers have created that isn’t stored on their own computers;

* 68% of end users say it is difficult or very difficult to share appropriate data or files with business partners such as customers or vendors.

Uncovering internal vulnerability

The findings also convey that both IT practitioners and end users agree that the compromise of employee accounts that can lead to external data breaches are most likely to be caused by insiders with too much access who are frequently unaware of the risks that they present. 

50% of end users and 74% of IT practitioners believe that insider mistakes, negligence or malice are frequently or very frequently the cause of leakage of company data. And only 47% of IT practitioners say employees in their organisations take appropriate steps to protect the company data they access. When permissions management and auditing capabilities are not in place, employees’ excessive access to data and their negligence for security are increasingly putting company data at risk.

Other key findings on root causes of data breaches include:

* 6% of end users say their job requires them to access and use proprietary information such as customer data, employee records, financial reports, and confidential business document;

* 38% of end users report that they and their co-workers can see 'a lot of data' that they believe they should not have access to;

* Only 47% of IT professionals say end users in their organisations are taking appropriate steps to protect company data accessed by them;

* 76% of end users believe there are times when it is acceptable to transfer work documents to their personal devices, while only 13% of IT practitioners agree;

* 49% of IT practitioners say it is not likely or there is no chance that when documents, files or emails are lost or change unexpectedly, the organisation will be able to assess what happened to them.

* 67% of IT practitioners say their organisation experienced the loss or theft of company data over the past two years, while only 44% of end users believe this has happened.

Yaki Faitelson, Varonis Co-Founder and CEO, said: “These findings should be a wake-up call to any organisation that stores information about its customers, employees or business partners, which means almost any business or institution in today’s world.

“There has been so much focus and investment on protecting the perimeter, but the most fundamental building blocks of security that protect the data inside – access controls and auditing – are often left behind. Unnecessary access combined with a lack of auditing capability adds up to inevitable disaster. 

“Now we see that lack of control and oversight is impacting employee productivity as well, as they struggle to find and get access to data and share it easily and securely with business partners. Varonis is helping thousands of organisations around the world address these challenges in ways that not only reduce risk dramatically but actually improve productivity and efficiency at the same time.”