Social networking risks under little control

While social media is pervasive in organizations worldwide, usage has far outpaced controls, according to the latest study conducted by Palo Alto Networks. The degree of associated risk varies dramatically across industries and geographies, depending upon factors such as regulations and cybercrime. IT professionals must consider the heterogeneity of risk in their application usage policies, compliance needs and security profiles.

This report shows that barriers to accessing applications are at an all-time low, accelerating the adoption of applications regardless of geography or vertical industry. While financial services and healthcare workers increasingly rely on social media for business collaboration, they often ignore the associated risks such as non-compliance, data loss and threat propagation. These risks can jeopardize the company’s network as well as the integrity of the entire business operation.

For example, the report showed that 94 percent of the healthcare and financial services organizations included in the study use an average of 28 social networking applications, including Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Both industries have regulations (such as HIPAA and FINRA) that require organizations to control and monitor information flow across social networking applications in order to protect the confidential data they manage.

However, because social networking apps use port 80 or port 443, all traffic appears to be browser-based traffic. This lack of visibility into social networking traffic could be a violation, or lead to violations, of compliance with industry rules and regulations.

As a result, many IT managers are faced with the daunting task of banning social media applications altogether. But is this really feasible?

Other findings from the report include:

  • Of the 41 different email applications found, 26 browser-based variants were detected in both healthcare and financial services industries, consuming 220 GB and 152 GB respectively. Widespread use of webmail portends a variety of business and security risks, from compliance violations and data leakage to malware propagation.
  • Two-thirds of the 750 applications tracked, even client server and peer-to-peer (P2P) applications, can pass as Web traffic by hopping ports, using port 80, or hiding within SSL. This debunks the myth that ports 80 and 443 are reserved for browser-based traffic only. If P2P file sharing applications look like Web traffic, then they are difficult to detect and control. This dramatically increases the risk of inadvertent data leakage.
  • Use of browser-based file sharing applications consumes 399 GB of bandwidth in financial services organizations, and 143 GB in healthcare firms. The one-to-one delivery nature of these applications minimizes the risk of inadvertent data loss or leakage, but does not prevent the purposeful movement of confidential data unless strict policy controls are in place.
  • The bandwidth consumed by social networking applications doubled in the last 18 months to 9GB per organization.
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Social networking risks under little control