When people think about data breaches, they tend think more about the illegal hacking into computer networks by individuals, criminal enterprises or even nation states, than they do about simple employee error. This makes some sense as hacking incidents seem to be more interesting and draw more media attention. Holding this belief, however, can cause many to underestimate the risk of a breach due to the assumption they are not likely to be the target of a hack, and miss altogether the risk of employee error. A recent report by the Wall Street Journal about a survey by the Association for Corporate Counsel may change this.
According to the survey, “employee error” turns out to be the most common reason for a data breach. An example of the kind of employee error mentioned in the survey – “accidently sending an email with sensitive information to someone outside the company” – is something just about all of us have heard about or experienced in our own organizations.
So what does this mean? Well, for organizations that want to minimize the chance of a data breach, they may have to rethink their current strategies. This is particularly true in industries in which more employees are likely to have access to greater amounts of personal information – healthcare, insurance, retail, professional services, etc.
Addressing the risk of “employee error” is difficult…mistakes happen. But there are steps organization can take to minimize the risk. Here are a few:
- Understand the risks your workforce presents. Addressing data security in an organization often means focusing on its IT infrastructure, with less attention to how employees do their jobs, what information they have access to and why, and whether employees are sufficiently aware of best practices for safeguarding information, among other things. Firewalls, software updates and encryption all are important to a comprehensive information security program, but to address employee error organizations first must understand the roles employees play and the functions they carry out that involve personal information. It is not uncommon for employee mistakes to bypass the IT safeguards, resulting in a data breach.
- Reevaluate the role of IT. In many organizations, data breach prevention is thought of solely as an IT function. In most cases, this is simply the wrong approach. Data security is an enterprise-wide concern, requiring other stakeholders to have a seat at the table when trying to understand and minimize these risks. Assessing the risks healthcare workers pose to patient data, for example, requires more than an understanding of the level of encryption on the network. Does the worker know when he or she is able to disclose PHI to a family member, other person? Are workers aware of and follow the minimum necessary rule? How are workers using their personal devices, working from home, etc. The IT department is a necessary component for developing a data security plan, but its participation alone is not sufficient.
- Training, training, training. Organizations and their employees are increasingly challenged by an expanding regulatory and compliance environment – data security is a part of that environment. The absence of adequate training can not only cause the organization to fall short of certain compliance mandates, but it is a missed opportunity to reduce data breach risk. Training ought to reach beyond how to set a good password and the policy on using flash drives. These are important, but training also should remind employees about basic steps they take in the course of their particular job which could trigger a significant breach if they are not careful – e.g., be careful when forwarding email with sensitive attachments, avoid clicking on links in emails, don’t leave boxes with sensitive data laying around, etc.
Obviously, more can be done to minimize the risk to personal data caused by employee error and those steps depend on a range of factors specific to each organization. However, organizations first have to recognize that employee error is a significant risk, and this requires thinking beyond IT-related risks.