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By Javvad Malik, Security Awareness Advocate at KnowBe4 Banks and financial industries are quite literally where the money is, positioning them as prominent targets for cybercriminals worldwide. Unfortunately, regardless of investments made in the latest technologies, the Achilles heel of these institutions is their employees. Often times, a human blunder […]

By Javvad Malik, Security Awareness Advocate at KnowBe4

Banks and financial industries are quite literally where the money is, positioning them as prominent targets for cybercriminals worldwide. Unfortunately, regardless of investments made in the latest technologies, the Achilles heel of these institutions is their employees. Often times, a human blunder is found to be a contributing factor of a security breach, if not the direct source. Indeed, in the 2020 Verizon Data Breach Investigations Report, miscellaneous errors were found vying closely with web application attacks for the top cause of breaches affecting the financial and insurance sector. A secretary may forward an email to the wrong recipient or a system administrator may misconfigure firewall settings. Perhaps, a user clicks on a malicious link. Whatever the case, the outcome is equally dire.

Having grown acutely aware of the role that people play in cybersecurity, business leaders are scrambling to establish a strong security culture within their own organisations. In fact, for many leaders across the globe, realising a strong security culture is of increasing importance, not solely for fear of a breach, but as fundamental to the overall success of their organisations – be it to create customer trust or enhance brand value. Yet, the term lacks a universal definition, and its interpretation varies depending on the individual. In one survey of 1,161 IT decision makers, 758 unique definitions were offered, falling into five distinct categories. While all important, these categories taken apart only feature one aspect of the wider notion of security culture.

With an incomplete understanding of the term, many organisations find themselves inadvertently overconfident in their actual capabilities to fend off cyberthreats. This speaks to the importance of building a single, clear and common definition from which organisations can learn from one another, benchmark their standing and construct a comprehensive security programme.

Defining Security Culture: The Seven Dimensions

In an effort to measure security culture through an objective, scientific method, the term can be broken down into seven key dimensions:

  • Attitudes: Formed over time and through experiences, attitudes are learned opinions reflecting the preferences an individual has in favour or against security protocols and issues.
  • Behaviours: The physical actions and decisions that employees make which impact the security of an organisation.
  • Cognition: The understanding, knowledge and awareness of security threats and issues.
  • Communication: Channels adopted to share relevant security-related information in a timely manner, while encouraging and supporting employees as they tackle security issues.
  • Compliance: Written security policies and the extent that employees adhere to them.
  • Norms: Unwritten rules of conduct in an organisation.
  • Responsibilities: The extent to which employees recognise their role in sustaining or endangering their company’s security.

All of these dimensions are inextricably interlinked; should one falter so too would the others.

The Bearing of Banks and Financial Institutions

Collecting data from over 120,000 employees in 1,107 organisations across 24 countries, KnowBe4’s ‘Security Culture Report 2020’ found that the banking and financial sectors were among the best performers on the security culture front, with a score of 76 out of a 100. This comes as no surprise seeing as they manage highly confidential data and have thus adopted a long tradition of risk management as well as extensive regulatory oversight.

Indeed, the security culture posture is reflected in the sector’s well-oiled communication channels. As cyberthreats constantly and rapidly evolve, it is crucial that effective communication processes are implemented. This allows employees to receive accurate and relevant information with ease; having an impact on the organisation’s ability to prevent as well as respond to a security breach. In IBM’s 2020 Cost of a Data Breach study, the average reported response time to detect a data breach is 207 days with an additional 73 days to resolve the situation. This is in comparison to the financial industry’s 177 and 56 days.

Moreover, with better communication follows better attitude – both banking and financial services scored 80 and 79 in this department, respectively. Good communication is integral to facilitating collaboration between departments and offering a reminder that security is not achieved solely within the IT department; rather, it is a team effort. It is also a means of boosting morale and inspiring greater employee engagement. As earlier mentioned, attitudes are evaluations, or learned opinions. Therefore, by keeping employees informed as well as motivated, they are more likely to view security best practices favourably, adopting them voluntarily.

Predictably, the industry ticks the box on compliance as well. The hefty fines issued by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) in the past year alone, including Capital One’s $80 million penalty, probably play a part in keeping financial institutions on their toes.

Nevertheless, there continues to be room for improvement. As it stands, the overall score of 76 is within the ‘moderate’ classification, falling a long way short of the desired 90-100 range. So, what needs fixing?

Towards Achieving Excellence

There is often the misconception that banks and financial institutions are well-versed in security-related information due to their extensive exposure to the cyber domain. However, as the cognition score demonstrates, this is not the case – dawdling in the low 70s. This illustrates an urgent need for improved security awareness programmes within the sector. More importantly, employees should be trained to understand how this knowledge is applied. This can be achieved through practical exercises such as simulated phishing, for example. In addition, training should be tailored to the learning styles as well as the needs of each individual. In other words, a bank clerk would need a completely different curriculum to IT staff working on the backend of servers.

By building on cognition, financial institutions can instigate a sense of responsibility among employees as they begin to recognise the impact that their behaviour might have on the company. In cybersecurity, success is achieved when breaches are avoided. In a way, this negative result removes the incentive that typically keeps employees engaged with an outcome. Training methods need to take this into consideration.

Then there are norms and behaviours, found to have strong correlations with one another. Norms are the compass from which individuals refer to when making decisions and negotiating everyday activities. The key is recognising that norms have two facets, one social and the other personal. The former is informed by social interactions, while the latter is grounded in the individual’s values. For instance, an accountant may connect to the VPN when working outside of the office to avoid disciplinary measures, as opposed to believing it is the right thing to do. Organisations should aim to internalise norms to generate consistent adherence to best practices irrespective of any immediate external pressures. When these norms improve, behavioural changes will reform in tandem.

Building a robust security culture is no easy task. However, the unrelenting efforts of cybercriminals to infiltrate our systems obliges us to press on. While financial institutions are leading the way for other industries, much still needs to be done. Fortunately, every step counts -every improvement made in one dimension has a domino effect in others.

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