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Younger employees 'main culprits' for security breaches

UK senior decision makers believe younger workers are the biggest risk to cyber security, but are doing little to support them and reduce that risk, a report reveals

More than a third of senior executives believe that younger employees are the “main culprits” for data security breaches in the workplace, a study shows.

However, the same decision makers are doing very little to allay their own fears, with more than a third of 18 to 24 year olds able to access any files on the company network, and less than half (43%) have access only to the files that are relevant to their work.

These are the main findings of an independent study into attitudes to security of the next generation workforce, commissioned by security firm Centrify.

The study, conducted by Censuswide, sought the views of 1,000 next generation workers (18-24 year olds) and 500 decision makers in UK organisations.

The study examines how security, privacy and online behaviour at work impacts the lives of younger employees and the companies that they work for.

Password sharing tops the list of what keeps decision makers awake at night (56%), but 29% of younger workers reveal that they are in the driving seat when it comes to password changes, with their employers leaving it to them to decide when they need a password change. Furthermore 15% admit to sharing passwords with colleagues.

Asked how younger employees could negatively impact the workplace, 47% of decision makers worry about them sharing social media posts and the impact these could have on brand and reputation.

Read more about zero-trust security approach

These concerns appear well founded with one in five workers saying they are not bothered about how their social media activity might affect their employers and 18% admitting that their posts could compromise employers’ security and privacy policies.

However, less than half say their company has social media guidelines in place, highlighting the need for strong social media access controls that follow the principles of a zero-trust approach to security, which assumes that users inside a network are no more trustworthy than those outside the network.

The “always on” approach to technology of younger workers with no experience of an off-line world, further reinforces the need for robust security policies, the study report said. When it comes to this generation of workers, 40% of decision makers are concerned about their misuse of devices, while 35% say they are too trusting of technology and 30% worry they share company data too easily.

While 79% of decision makers report having a strong security policy in place and 74% of them think that their employees abide by it, over a third (37%) feel that young workers are too relaxed about security policies.

Awareness of the dark web

Decision makers also say the next generation of workers have a good awareness of the dark web (87%), underground hacking (79%) and crimeware. And although around half (48%) say they have strict guidelines in place for employees accessing these new “dark arts”, 39% feel they could be better.

“Some may think of younger workers as always online, always ready to share information and perhaps not being as concerned about privacy or security as perhaps older workers, but we must remember they are the business leaders of tomorrow and we must help not hinder them,” said Barry Scott, chief technology officer for Europe at Centrify.

“While it’s clear that employers are concerned about this new generation entering the workforce – and see them as a potential risk to both the business and brand – these same companies are perhaps guilty of not putting in place the right security processes, policies and technologies.

“If you give employees access to any information at any time from any place, or fail to enforce strict password and security policies, they are likely to take full advantage, putting both their own jobs at risk as well as the company itself,” he said.

According to Scott, the study shows it is time to discard the old castle and moat model of “trust but verify” because it does not work in today’s mobile-first, cloud-enabled world where employees can be anywhere and work on multiple devices.

“Traditional network perimeters are dissolving and security professionals must adopt a zero-trust security approach that assumes bad actors are already on the network,” he said. “With zero-trust, we verify every user, validate their device and limit their access to only the resources they need, and use machine learning to ensure the resulting improved security has no impact on efficiency.

“Let’s be clear that zero-trust is not saying we’ve lost trust in our employees, it actually provides an enabler to allow them to work exactly the same way wherever they are, and provides the company with a stronger security posture.”

Extra mentoring needed

The study report concludes that while managers’ assumptions that next-generation workers are the root of cyber security problems in the workplace may be overstated, there are some areas, such as social media use and password management, where younger workers do need extra mentoring.

Decision makers can do more to address this problem, the report said, by putting technical controls in place, refining security policies and communicating them effectively to employees.

However, according to the report, leadership and the need for decision makers to set a good example are equally important. “If managers can demonstrate a commitment to security through their own policies and actions, then the next-generation workforce will surely follow,” the report said.

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