Can you have too much security?

Judging by discussions I’ve had with various IT professionals, they certainly feel like their company goes too far when it comes to security. When employees consider a company “too secure”, there’s a mismatch between the IT management’s view of security and the rest of the business. Those responsible for security keep striving to protect the business by setting and enforcing policies. The rest of the business might be frustrated under the weight of security, especially if the security policies forbid new technologies, applications or devices that the business wants to adopt. So what does it mean to be “too secure”?

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Mostly, it means that the company’s security is too rigid. The rules and policies have gradually expanded and become more restrictive, until they are too rigid to allow the company to compete and innovate. Perhaps it wasn’t always like that. At first, a lot of the policies make sense and are easy to understand and implement. Over time, however, various decisions, compromises and technology constraints lead to more policies and stricter policies. Every new policy should be balanced against the opportunity cost and competitive cost of that policy, but after a while it becomes about security for security’s sake, the reasons long forgotten, the compromises adding up to less flexible operating practices until security is slowing everything down.

It’s very easy to slide down this slope. It is especially easy when your IT security department is budget starved and barraged with new technology and massive change (from consumerization, re-organization, acquisition etc). If that is coupled with a poor and inflexible security architecture, the available choices dwindle and the security pros are forced to say “no”, again and again.

As security gets more rigid, the cost in competitiveness and innovation gets passed on to the business. Except for some grumbling, there is very little connecting the poor security choices with their competitive implications. With incentives and motivations unbalanced like that, it’s no wonder that security can become a slippery slope into obsolescence, irrelevance and stagnation.

The irony of all this of course is that rigid security rules do not make a company “too secure”, or even “more secure” than it used to be. A rigid set of security policies simply creates the illusion of security. Since most employees are only aware of security as an impediment, then presumably the larger the impediment, the more secure the company must be. Of course, the opposite it true. As security becomes more rigid, it is also more complex and less easy for users to understand and practice.

As the corporate culture becomes exhausted by restrictive rules, it develops an immunity of sorts: the rules start getting broken in small but cumulative ways. Rigid security is like a brick house in an earthquake. It may appear stronger than the wooden house next door, but when it can’t bend gracefully to accept and dissipate the change, it suffers structural failure.

Don’t get me wrong: a lot of companies are insufficiently secure and really need to understand risk better. But you can also go too far, make security too rigid and hurt your company’s competitive spirit, security culture and ability to absorb change. Then you are less secure and less competitive.

Network World (US)

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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