Biggest cybersecurity breaches originate from spotty defense, not hackers or spies

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This past week, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited America on his first state visit. While President Barack Obama chatted with Xi and his wife over an elegant state dinner, the atmosphere was strained by allegations of Chinese state-sponsored cyber espionage on American firms.

Separating hyperbole from fact in this case is almost impossible, but what is known is that the state of computer security is astonishingly weak. New breaches have practically become routine. These breaches are problems that can be solved; however, unfortunately for those who seek an easy solution, they require a fundamental shift in corporate culture.

It is important to realize through all of these breaches that the core principles of cybersecurity have not been compromised. Advanced Encryption Standard-256, the method that is generally conventional for encryption, has not been weakened in any real sense: there are more possible ways to encrypt data than there are atoms in the entire universe. Companies that are willing to put in the effort to protect their data are virtually impregnable. However, to do so requires much more than a small cybersecurity team.

The biggest threats in cybersecurity are not created by hackers or spies, but by the average worker. If those in charge of protecting servers know what they are doing, attacking through the Internet might as well be impossible. However, any attempt to protect sensitive information is only as strong as its weakest link. Openings can be introduced as much through exploits in systems as through the mistakes made by people who don’t know any better.

In the dry humor of the IT world, these are referred to as PEBCAK errors: Problem Exists Between Chair and Keyboard. Dropping infected USB drives in parking lots so that workers take them into their offices to check what is inside, for instance, has become so common that many branches of the government outright ban the use of USB ports. Until gaping holes like these are closed, any discussion of hacking will be pointless, as there can be no security without everyone understanding what should be avoided.

Training workers to respect cybersecurity rules when they’re not particularly knowledgeable about technology is difficult, but not impossible. One potential way to move forward is to follow the model of Riot Games, a company most widely known for the multiplayer video game “League of Legends.” To buff up employee awareness about espionage, the company hires actors who pretend to be employees, according to a 2012 article from Employees who spot the imposters are awarded a prize. By placing an incentive on being vigilant, Riot Games creates a culture where even those who know little about security understand what is and isn’t permissible.

Others would be wise to adopt policies like this and more. As such, even those who find cybersecurity boring and arcane will see a reason to care.

Andrew Langen is a junior majoring in economics and math.

Featured image courtesy pixelcreatures.