Human error causes most security breaches

Human error, not technology, is the most significant cause of IT security breaches, according to a security survey released by...

Human error, not technology, is the most significant cause of IT security breaches, according to a security survey released by the Computing Technology Industry Association in the US.

The survey, "Committing to Security: A CompTIA Analysis of IT Security and the Workforce", suggested more training and certification of IT workers would help the US protect itself against cyber threats.

In more than 63% of security breaches identified by respondents, human error was the major cause. Only 8% were purely technical failures.

Brian McCarthy, CompTIA’s chief operating officer, called the results "staggering". He noted that many survey respondents said that most of their IT workers had no security training.

"It's not about the technology, but it's all about the people," McCarthy said at a press conference Tuesday. "Yes, technology plays a critical role, but unless you have the right people behind the wheel, and their knowledge levels are correct, you'll have some real challenges."

CompTIA, a trade association offering technology certifications, said the survey's results showed the need for more security training and certification.

Among the results of the survey, conducted by NFO Prognostics, of 638 respondents from the public and private sectors:

  • 31% had experienced from one to three major security breaches, causing real harm, in the last six months. Another 4% said they had between four and nine major security breaches in the previous six months, and another 3% said they had 10 or more major security breaches in six months.
  • 22% said none of their IT employees have received security-related training; 69% have fewer than 25% of their IT staff trained in security ; and only 11% said all of their IT employees have security training.
  • 96% would recommend security training for their IT staff.
  • 73% would recommend more comprehensive security certifications for their IT staff.
  • 66% believe that staff training or certification have improved their IT security, through increased awareness and risk identification.

"Frankly, we’re surprised no one's picked up on this before," McCarthy said.  "The connection between having more IT security training and making our IT networks more secure seems so obvious, yet it’s been largely overlooked.  It’s just common sense."

Robert Kramer, vice president of global public policy for CompTIA, noted that more than 90% of the organisations responding said they use antivirus technologies and firewalls/proxy servers, but only 19% required previous security experience for their IT workers and 23% required security training.

"Although the problem is something that focuses on human error, the solutions you would expect are not forthcoming," Kramer added.

The survey also showed that 17% of organisations responding took no measures to monitor their general security performance over time. Sixty percent had some kind of security awareness programme in place, and 53% employed security audits or penetration testing.

Seventy-five per cent of respondents spent 10% or less of their IT budgets on security, including 12% of respondents who spent nothing, and 77% of the respondents said their organisations spent less than 5% of their IT security budgets on training or certification.

"There's an intent to measure improvements, but there are no metrics attached to that intent," said Kramer, citing the need for certification.

The survey of government, IT, finance and other industries was conducted during the fourth quarter of 2002.

Read more on IT risk management