Mobiles and tablets expose businesses to massive risk

Businesses in the UK are failing to respond to the culture of employees using their own mobile devices for work and are opening up their systems to security risks claims a new survey.

The preliminary findings of the 2012 Information Security Breaches Survey (ISBS) - written by PwC in conjunction with Infosecurity Europe and supported by the department for Business, Innovation and Skills - have been released ahead of the full report and the results make frightening reading;

  • 54% of small businesses don't have a security awareness programme
  • 45% of small businesses reported security breaches caused by staff
  • Only 26% of respondents with a security policy believe their staff have a very good understanding of it

Risks from staff security breaches

Some 61% of small businesses allow staff to use smart phones and tablets to connect to their office systems and yet only 24% of small businesses apply data encryption on the devices. Around half (45%) of small businesses reported security breaches caused by staff and 20% lost or leaked confidential information, showing this is not a threat they can ignore.

Personalisation is creating new security threats, from both malicious software and data loss, the survey shows, and organisations that allow personally owned devices tend to have weaker controls than those that allow corporate devices only.

Chris Potter, PwC information security partner, said:

"With the explosion of new mobile devices and the blurring of lines between work and personal life, organisations are opening their systems up to massive risk. Smart phones and tablet computers are often lost or stolen, with any data on them exposed. Mobile devices can literally drill straight through your security defences, if you're not careful.

"However, organisations aren't responding to these new challenges. Just as we saw a decade ago with computer viruses, companies are slow to adjust their controls as technology usage changes. It's vital to tell your staff about the risks. If you don't, your own people could inadvertently become your worst security enemy. It's clear how important smart phones and tablets have become - as confidential data is increasingly stored on them, the chance of data breaches increases."

Security policy

Alarmingly, 54% of small businesses don't have any kind of programme for educating their staff about security risks. Only 26% of respondents with a security policy believe their staff have a very good understanding of it while 21% think the level of staff understanding is poor. Indeed, 75% of organisations whose security policy is poorly understood had staff-related security breaches in the last year.

One in seven organisations that give a high or very high priority to security haven't written down their policy; most of these are small businesses that rely on word of mouth instead, but only a third think their staff fully understands it. Those companies that have invested in staff awareness training meanwhile are reaping the benefits – they are four times as likely to have staff who clearly understand the security policy and half as likely to have staff-related security breaches as organisations that don't train their staff.

Chris Potter, PwC information security partner, said:

"Setting out your security is essential to ensure staff know what risks to look out for, how to handle data appropriately and what to do if a breach occurs. The root cause of security breaches by staff is often a failure by organisations to invest in educating staff about security risks. Yet organisations are failing to promote a culture of security awareness so staff are often unaware of the risks they're posing.

"Often, breaches occur through ignorance rather than malice. Possession of a security policy by itself does not prevent breaches; staff need to understand it and put it into practice. The survey results show a clear payback from security awareness programmes – education leads to greater understanding which in turn leads to fewer breaches. Unfortunately, the survey results also show that it often takes a serious incident before companies train their staff."