The five biggest IT security mistakes

Ellen Messmer outlines five traps to avoid

Like cleaning the windows, IT security can be a thankless task because it's only noticed when it hasn't been done. But to get the job done in the era of virtualisation, smartphones and cloud computing, it's vital to avoid technical and political mistakes. In particular, here are five security mistakes to avoid:

1. Thinking that the business mindset of the organisation is the same as five years ago

It's not. Your power and influence are being whittled away as the organisation you work for flings open the doors to allowing employees to use personal mobile devices at work, and pushes traditional computing resources and applications into the cloud -- sometimes without your knowledge. You have to be proactive in introducing reasonable security practices onto what are fast-moving technology choices which are sometimes made by those outside the IT department altogether. It's a "mission-impossible" assignment, but it's yours. It may involve developing new policy guidance to clearly spell out risk factors so there are no false assumptions.

2. Failing to build working relationships with IT and upper-level managers

IT security divisions are typically small in relation to the rest of the IT department. IT security leans on IT staffers to get basic security jobs done. The security professional may have specialised knowledge and a pocketful of certifications like the CISSP, but that doesn't mean he or she is necessarily admired or liked because of that -- especially as security people are usually the ones saying "no" to other people's projects.

Moreover, don't think the power structure is always pointing toward the chief information officer as top decision maker. A fundamental shift is occurring in which the traditional role of the CIO as commander of IT projects is declining in favor of the rise of the chief financial officer having the final say on IT projects. Some evidence shows the CFO doesn't even like the IT department. The CFO's ideas about security may only go as far as the general legal idea of "compliance." The job for the security professional must be to communicate, communicate, communicate.

3. Not understanding that virtualisation has pulled the rug out from under everyone's security footing

Organisations are well on their way to achieving 80% virtualisation of their server infrastructure, and desktop virtualisation projects are increasing. But security is lagging, with many incorrectly assuming it begins and ends with VLANs. The reality is that virtualisation architectures change everything by opening new pathways that can be exploited. As has happened so many times before in the IT industry, groundbreaking technologies have become available for use with inadequate attention paid to the security impact.

Some traditional security products, such as antivirus software for instance, often don't work well in virtual machines. Physical appliances may have new "blind spots." Today, specialized security products for virtualized environments are finally coming to market -- and security professionals need to figure out if any of them should be used, while also keeping up with evolving security plans from vendors such as VMware, Microsoft and Citrix. Virtualisation holds tremendous promise in eventually improving security, especially disaster recovery.

4. Not preparing for a data breach

It's the nightmare scenario in which sensitive data is either stolen or accidentally leaked. In addition to technical detection and remediation, the law needs to be followed regarding data breaches. When it happens, a data breach is going to be an event -- and an expensive one at that -- that requires coordinated participation by the IT security manager, the IT department , the legal department, human resources and the public affairs divisions, if not more. Organisations should be meeting to plan for worst-case scenarios, conducting a data-breach drill internally.

5. Complacency with IT security vendors

It's necessary to have solid "partnerships" with IT and security vendors. But the danger in any vendor relationship is forgetting how to look at products and services with a critical eye, particularly in terms of sizing up what they have in relation to their competition or finding new approaches to basic problems of authentication and authorization, vulnerability assessment and malware protection. Many vendors are struggling to adapt traditional security controls to the realms of virtualisation and cloud computing. In some sense, it's a time of chaos as the IT industry undergoes a reinvention. But that only means that IT security is going to have to push harder to get what it believes the organisation needs now or in the future.

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