Ten security holes to avoid

Here are some suggestions on how to do fill security holes without spending a dime.


Many companies spend a small fortune and deploy a small army to secure themselves from the many security threats lurking these days. But all those efforts can come to naught when making any of these common mistakes. The results can range from embarrassing to devastating, but security experts say that all are easily avoidable.

And almost all can be done without spending one more dime.

Here are the 10 most common security land mines that experts say you need to avoid.

1. A slip of the finger reveals the company secret

Many of the most prevalent security issues are the result of small technological habits that can easily be avoided.

For instance, imagine how many inadvertent data loss events could be eliminated if more users were instructed to turn off the e-mail address "autofill" feature in Microsoft Outlook and other messaging systems, said Steve Roop, senior director of marketing and products at Symantec.

"When employees are quickly addressing their e-mails, they inadvertently tab and select the wrong name in haste. The employee thinks he is sending an e-mail internally to Eric Friendly, but autofill instead sent it to Eric Foe," Roop said. "We've all done this. [But] if the e-mail contained sensitive data about a proposed merger or acquisition, then the secret is out."

As much as 90 percent of all information leakage events are tied to inadvertent e-mail foibles, including the autofill accidents and mistakes in handling encryption or misinterpreting usage policies, Roop said. Just the simple act of turning off something like autofill could save businesses a lot of headaches at no extra cost, he said.

2. People give away passwords and other secrets without thinking

More often than not, users - not outside intruders - are responsible for coughing up the passwords and personal data that allow attackers to break into their computers and their employer's networks to wreak havoc and tarnish their names.

Despite all the education people have been given about phishing, spyware programs, and hacked Web sites, many users are still willing to hand out their data whenever it is requested without checking to ensure that they aren't be duped or misled, said Dave Marcus, security research and communications manager at McAfee. "People assume the legitimacy of sites as presented; this is fundamentally incorrect in a web world," Marcus said. "The easiest way to steal someone's identity online is simply to ask them for it."

3. A trusted partner ends up not being so trustworthy with your data

Another common security error is found among users who assume that it is fine to send sensitive information such as human resources data to business partners or outsourcing services providers, Roop said. This land mine is made worse when the messages are sent unencrypted.

"The land mine is making the assumption that the person at the HR outsourcer isn't going to send the spreadsheet anywhere else or store the data improperly on their unsecured laptop," he said. "This land mine is true whenever sensitive data is shared via e-mail as part of a business process with third parties."

4. Web-based apps can be portals to leaks and thieves

A common behaviour that leads to a lot of security problems includes the use of webmail or allowing workers to access music-downloading and file-sharing services from the company network, said Marcus.

Such web-based apps bypass your security filters, as in the case of webmail, or open a channel to the outside that may carry viruses or worse into your organisation.

And if your employees take work home, these risks are magnified. If they use your computers and also do personal activities over the Web, those computers could be compromised, Marcus said. If they bring the data home - via email or a thumb drive - they risk it getting lost or stolen.

All of these problems can be avoided fairly easily through enforcement of policies that require the use of secure mail clients over VPNs or encrypted channels (in the case of e-mail), or not allowing users to install apps on their work computer or copy data to removable media (in the case of taking work home). Much of this can be managed through security policies and systems management apps. One difficult channel to block is the use by employees of e-mail to send themselves data, though encryption can help.

5. Hoping the worse doesn't happen only makes it worse

Nobody wants to have a data breach, but you need to act as if one will, advised Kevin Mandia, chief executive of Mandiant, which specialises in post-breach analysis services and software tools. Every organisation can take steps to lessen the impact of a breach once it happens. Unfortunately, most companies wait until it is too late to test or even create their response strategies, he said.

Every company should record the data flow, from who had access when to what systems used the data. But few do, Mandia said. "There's no question, the most common error we see is failure to document what happened," he said. "People hire us and the first thing we ask for is any related documentation that people already have. Most often, people will hand Terabytes of data and no formal documentation. Technicians stink at it, and lawyers don't mandate it. So in almost every incident, we go in and ask them what happened and the response is the sound of crickets chirping."

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