How Integrating Physical and Information Security Mitigates Risks

Though both are critical, physical and information security remain separate entities at many organizations. However, you can get a better grip on overall risk by integrating the two. Austin Recovery, a drug and alcohol treatment center, successfully took on the integration challenge-- and what it learned can teach corporations valuable lessons.

The night watchman and the IT security guy rarely work together even though their jobs, at the core, are similar: to protect the company. At many organizations, physical and information security remain separate entities by happenstance and by history. By integrating the two, however, companies can better protect the assets, employees and valuable data that keep the business going.

The integration is a first step towards assessing the overall corporate risks that threaten a company. Yet enacting a plan that conceives security as a cohesive, whole means overcoming entrenched resistance to integrating physical and information security, says Jonathan Ross, president and CEO of Austin Recovery, a drug and alcohol treatment center that recently finished such an integration.

Austin Recovery rolled out RedCloud's physical access control systems to secure the campus buildings and doors, linking the technology with its internal human resources directories. Austin Recovery employees with the proper authorization can control the RedCloud system through a secure Web interface.

The security lessons Austin Recovery learned during the integration can show corporate enterprises better ways to lock down information and protect employees and customers.

Realize You Need Help

Rehabilitation centers, like other health care organizations, must comply with Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and other regulations intended to protect personal and medical information, and Austin Recovery works hard at this. Yet the general atmosphere there sometimes collides with the sense among security professionals that data, systems and the physical facility can be better battened down, Ross says. "The helping professions are a challenge. There's a sense things should be open."

As we should know by now, many industries allow too much openness, or at least a habit of leaving holes unplugged. Companies in retail, financial services, oil and gas, hospitality, food service, manufacturing and elsewhere suffered a combined 855 data breaches in 2011, according to Verizon, which works with enforcement agencies in four countries to produce an annual report on breaches.

About 10 percent of these data incidents also involved a physical breach, such as getting physical access to a device or system with sensitive information or swapping legitimate access codes for fake ones, to gain entrance to an office or machine.

Keeping physical and information security separate, as so many companies do, can create gaps between the two entities that let intrusions go unnoticed, says Michael Assante, president and CEO of the National Board of Information Security Examiners, a research organization that focuses on professional development of security specialists. The separation can also lead to ineffective response once an incident is discovered, he says.

Assante was previously chief security officer at the North American Electric Reliability Corp., which monitors the performance of the electrical grid. He oversaw implementation of security standards across the electricity grid. Security teams that combine physical and information staff can apply a variety of investigative techniques to find problems sooner, he says. "It is critical that we consider how best to remove the vulnerabilities that are presented by silos."

It doesn't help that executives sometimes overestimate their security prowess. Forty-three percent of 9,600 business and IT executives called themselves security "frontrunners," according to the latest annual global security survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers and CSO magazine, a sister publication of CIO.

However, when researchers probed further, asking questions such as whether the executive had reviewed the corporate security policy in the past year and whether, if the company had a recent breach, the cause was understood, just 13 percent actually qualified as frontrunners.

Study your vulnerabilities

At Austin Recovery, one concern was that former employees, friends, family or other outsiders could get into the center through unwatched, unlocked doors or by printing fake name tags. They could interact with vulnerable residents or bring contraband inside, Ross says. In the past, for example, employees had stolen detoxification medications a few times, he says.

Sometimes 12-step volunteers who weren't cleared to see residents would enter the facility anyway. Angry men have also tried to get in to find their wives or girlfriends in treatment, potentially jeopardizing the safety of other patients, he says.

Now the new system protects better. Without the right credentials programmed into their badges, employees cannot print, copy or fax information. This helps cut down on the risks of not complying with certain HIPAA regulations. "We have a log of everyone who prints and what they print," Ross says.

Physically, the facilities are better fortified as well. Ross recalls that recently "an aggressive person" whom Austin Recovery had fired was threatening to come back. The IT manager locked down the front door, which automatically required employees to swipe their badge cards to get in and other visitors to use the outside intercom. The threat turned out to be empty, Ross says, but he felt better able to protect employees and patients because of the new technology.

"It's not keeping clients in, but keeping unauthorized people out," he says.

Plan for Pushback

Getting employees to use the new technology and adhere to new processes can be a slog, Assante says. Work habits are ingrained and even blending the two cultures of physical and information security staffs can be challenging, he says. CIOs and other IT leaders should identify as many opportunities as possible for the physical security staff to work alongside the IT counterparts. Assigning a cross-discipline team to conduct an integrated security assessment as "a great starting point," he says.

Retraining employees to change work routines was the more pressing problem for Austin Recovery. Ross approached the change in simple phases, first requiring employees to wear coded name badges, then setting new rules for who could use which doors when. In e-mail and frequent meetings, managers spelled out why the new policies are important -- safety, less risk, better compliance with regulations - and repeated many times that employees must comply.

"It was a long implementation because of cultural issues," he says, but taking it slow made the changes stick. "You can't just announce one day, 'If you don't do this, you're going to get in trouble,'" he says. "You have to get them to understand why it's so important."

Kim Nash is a senior editor for CIO Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @knash99.Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, on Facebook, and on Google +.

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