• United States



by Lance Spitzner

It’s time to start patching the Human OS

Dec 19, 20123 mins
IT LeadershipOperating SystemsROI and Metrics

Lance Spitzner wonders why we invest so much each year in security technologies but still fail to patch the most vulnerable element of all - the Human OS

Computers and mobile devices store, process and transfer highly valuable information. As a result, your organization most likely invests a great deal in protecting them. Protect the end point and you protect the information. Humans also store, process and transfer information — people are in many ways nothing more than another operating system, the Human OS.

Yet if you compare how much organizations invest in securing their computers versus how much effort they put into teaching employees how to safeguard information, you would be stunned at the difference. For example, organizations typically invest in the following resources to protect an end device:

  • Antivirus software
  • Patch management
  • Virtual private networks
  • Host-based prevention systems
  • Two-factor authentication
  • Vulnerability scanning
  • End-point encryption
  • Log monitoring

Now go down that list and add up the cost for securing each computer. Then add support contracts, help desk phone calls, and how many full-time employees it takes to maintain all of this technology. You probably end up spending $100 or $200 a device.

[3 reasons why employees don’t follow the rules]

Now, let’s go through the exact same process for people. How much to secure each employee? Hear those crickets chirping? Your organization is most likely spending 20 to 50 times more on securing computers than on securing the Human OS, if it’s working with those employees at all.

If finding the dollar amount for each computer is too complex, try a simpler metric. Count how many people you have on your information security team. Now, out of all those people, how many focus on securing technology and how many on securing the Human OS? You probably will end up with a very similar metric, something like 20-1 or 50-1. And organizations still wonder why the human is the weakest link.

Technology is important, and we must continue to invest in and protect it. However, eventually you hit a point of diminishing returns. We have to invest in securing the Human OS as well, or bad guys will continue to bypass all of our controls by simply compromising the human end-point.

Think of it in these terms: Fifteen years ago was the wild, wild West of hacking, the golden age of worms. Cyberattackers could easily compromise millions of systems by randomly scanning every system on the Internet and break into anything that was vulnerable, which was most systems in those days. We in the security community felt a great deal of pain and invested heavily in securing computers. Nowadays, computers come out of the box with firewalls, minimized services, automated patching and memory randomization. Fifteen years later, it has become much harder to compromise a computer.

[Using metrics to measure human awareness]

But in those same fifteen years, what have we done for the Human OS? Nothing. As a result, the Human OS is still stuck in the days of Windows95, WinNT or Solaris 2.5. There is no firewall on by default, all the services are enabled, and this operating system is happy to share data with anyone that asks.

Until we begin to address the human problem, the bad guys will continue to have it easy.

Lance Spitzner is the training director for the SANS Institute’s Securing the Human program.