End Users are Clueless -- and it's IT's Fault

Columnist Linda LeBlanc says end users are causing most of their own problems... and IT is to blame.
Posted November 14, 2005

Linda LeBlanc

So we're all agreed: Malware can be hazardous to your health.

We also agree that more and more exploits are being discovered every day in various software packages. Thankfully, vendors are finally exhibiting an ability to make security an essential component of their products, instead of viewing security as a bolt-on luxury feature no one really cares about. And best of all, some software creators realize security can be a selling point for their products.

The distance between announced vulnerabilities and publicly available exploits is getting slimmer, but the distance between exploits and patches also is getting smaller.

So why aren't we all happy?

Because you all aren't playing along. That's why.

Too many of my conversations go, more or less, like this...

''I wasn't doing anything and it just stopped working!''
Ok, what were you doing before you weren't doing anything? You were reading your email. Did you click on the link in that email? You know, the one that had a spam score of 47.0? Right, that one. So you weren't doing anything but reading your email, and then clicking on the link in the email from 'the bank', even though you don't have an account, and never have had an account, with this bank (which, by the way, you'd never heard of until you got this email). Is that right?

Obviously, we, as security professionals, can no longer blame the vendors for being inattentive to the situation. We can identify the problem pretty easily. Rather than try to be delicate about it, let's just see it for what it is.

Our end users have no clue. And that's our fault.

If we don't teach the people we're responsible for to take care of themselves -- just a little bit -- we are going to continue spending the majority of our time cleaning up perfectly preventable computing tragedies. This is important.

How much time has your organization lost to compromised systems? How many hours of productivity down the drain? Don't cheat yourself either. The number of hours you work on a system should be multiplied by the number of users dependent on that system, plus you. (This means if the boss' secretary prints out all of his email for him, and that system gets a virus, the secretary is down, the boss is down and you're down. That's right. You're down too, because you could be doing something more productive than re-imaging that machine.)

Here's another question. How many times is a simple rebuild complicated by the owner never doing a backup, and not being able to tell you where his files reside? So now you not only have to put in the time and expense of restoring the system, you also have to do the detective work of identifying and protecting/saving the data on the system. You run the risk of losing important corporate assets.

What's worse is that you know you'll be back on this machine within six months. And the guy who owns it? He won't have done a single back up since you last restored to him a pristine machine with all his stuff on it.

If only we could get up in the face of our users like drill instructors and scare the living daylights out of them into believing that if they ever click on another link, we're going to take their computer and...

Well, ok, that's just wishful thinking on my part.

But we can make a difference. We can get the message across through variety, repetition and repetition. (Yeah, repetitive just like that.)

There are three messages we need to tattoo on their foreheads.

One: Do not click on the link in that email that should have been marked or filtered as spam. And do not be tempted to even open your spam and peek at what may be inside. It's spam. Nothing good comes from spam.
Two: Back up your data religiously. Utilize resources the company provides. (The company better provide some, or you need to be working on management, as well.)
Three: Auto-update. Both Apple and Microsoft have finally gotten their collective acts together to provide OS patches as painlessly as possible. Turn on auto-update. It goes out and does what's necessary to keep the system patched. It's the 'turn it on' part we seem to be having trouble with. According to some reports only about 40 percent of users have auto-update activated.

See, we know what the problem is. We simply need to get on the stick to fixing it. We need to convince management (and management, if you're listening, pay attention here) that the expense of a quality archive system appropriate to the corporate mission, can be justified in the negative deliverable of lost data and down time. If your corporate environment is geared to mandates, then work on mandating auto-updates. If you live in a more liberal environment, such as a university, where dictating policy won't work, it's incumbent on you to convince your constituency that auto-updates are in their best interest.

You know your users. You know what message will be most effective. The ones who can't bear to be without their system, will gain comfort from knowing they will be less likely to incur system loss through compromise.

For those on the opposite end of the spectrum who don't know and don't care, just tell them to turn it on and you'll quit bugging them about it.

It's the ones in the middle you have to treat carefully. They won't let you tell them what to do, and they don't feel they have any incentive to do what you ask. You might try both ends against the middle here. Tell them, you'll quit bugging them if they will activate auto-update. And remind them that that includes you coming around and seizing their system when it's been compromised.

They're just as happy to not see you as you are to not have to see them.

As for spam, and the people who read spam? ''We have seen the enemy, and they is us.''

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