Cloudy with a chance of data loss: Has corporate IT lost control?

There is real danger that the current climate of freedom and flexibility enjoyed by many enterprise businesses using cloud computing could be overshadowed by a storm looming on the horizon.

The unsanctioned use of consumer-oriented file-sharing services across businesses is a growing concern for IT departments everywhere. Often referred to as the 'Dropbox problem' by managers and administrators because of the prolific consumer file-sync and share tool, the threat applies equally to all consumer-oriented file-sharing services used under the radars of IT teams.

Consumerisation of technology has certainly accelerated the migration of these consumer-grade cloud storage services into the workplace. These tools were designed to provide consumers with maximum convenience and ease-of-use, with virtually no emphasis on privacy and security. It’s understandable that they have achieved such massive popularity as a result of their simplicity. But at what cost to businesses that are unaware of the threats?

There is an important matter of control and ownership at stake here. In a recent survey of 167 senior IT decision makers with an average of 1,500 employees, 84 per cent of senior IT management said they were “concerned” over employee-managed cloud services, and yet less than 15 per cent said they had provided useable alternatives for those using these tools.

Simply put, business owners and employees need to work together to change behavior. It needs to be a priority for management to educate employees about the risks, as well as to provide an alternative that balances the productivity requirements of workers, while meeting the security, reporting and visibility requirements to comply with IT policies or external privacy regulations.

Know which way the wind blows

The first step in overcoming any potential threat to business security and productivity is to study any patterns of behavior that could evolve into future threats. These latest research responses from senior IT decision makers revealed that businesses are losing fundamental control of critical business data.

Unsurprisingly, when asked by Osterman Research how good they thought their management of information security for file-sharing was, just 7 per cent of business decision makers said they would rank their company with an “A” grade. Despite this concern and awareness, only 14 per cent of IT decision makers surveyed had done anything to encourage their employees away from consumer-focused sync and share, although 58 per cent acknowledged that it was currently a “high or moderately high priority.”

The research uncovered other file management challenges too. Using email clients to transfer files is still permitted at 95 per cent of businesses questioned, followed by Microsoft SharePoint (63 per cent), then FTP services (58 per cent). More than a third (41 per cent) admitted that employee-managed file sync and share tools remained the most common means of transferring files, but this number is likely to be significantly higher after taking into account those users that conceal their use of Dropbox-style services from their IT teams.

Every cloud has a silver lining

Once information moves into an employee's personal cloud storage, their business has no further control over who it is shared with or what else is done with it. It’s no different than physically handing a box of your valuable company files to an ex-employee as they leave the building.

On a more positive note, more than half (54 per cent) of decision makers surveyed claimed to use file sync and share tools managed by their IT department. This is definitely a step in the right direction. Some consumer sync and share tools have certainly begun incorporating security, privacy and team collaboration features as optional post-development add-ons. Sadly, the average user will not have access to these, nor care about such options when quickly sharing files.

The time is right to educate and to encourage employees to improve their data-sharing habits. In most cases, they simply don’t realise the insecurity of the solutions they’re using.

The future is bright

Modern IT departments realise that to overcome security challenges they must work together with users-- not dictate to them. The advent of the cloud model means that smart users can readily circumvent restrictions if they see no value in abiding by the rules. IT teams must therefore be inclusive and proactive, investing in secure file-sharing solutions that are accepted by users while also providing visibility, compliance and security.

Fortunately, there are good alternatives for the 84 per cent of senior IT management who admit they are “concerned” over employee-managed cloud services.

The bottom line is this: there are times when we all need to share files. But there is never an occasion when any of us should trust a consumer-grade service with critical business data. It simply presents too many risks.

Michael Ryan is the CEO of South River Technologies, providers of secure file transfer solutions.