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Mitigating Risk: The Dangers of Misuses of Employee Access to Digital and Physical Data

The sad fact is employee data misuse is on the rise, with over a third of data breaches happening as a result of staffing errors, theft or misuse. And this makes sense given that employees are the only group with ready access to your digital and physical data assets.

While businesses are switched on to the external threat of data theft, many overlook the risks posed by their employees. Because even if staff have no malicious intent (though some do), they still pose a major threat to the security and integrity of your data.

So, what are the dangers of employee data misuse? What constitutes it? And how do you prevent it? In this post, we’re exploring employee data misuse in greater depth, explaining why it happens and what you can do about it.

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How Common is Employee Data Misuse?

Employee data misuse (which includes both malicious acts like theft and accidental mishandling) is increasing, with year-on-year growth over the past decade. Indeed, it’s now among the greatest risks a business can face, in some cases outstripping the threat of cyberattacks from external parties.

With statistics showing that over one-third of data breaches are caused by insiders, it’s painfully apparent that this is a serious threat that cannot be ignored. Businesses around the world invest heavily in fortifying their IT security against external attacks, and the same respect must be paid to internal breaches.

Minor forms of employee data misuse are probably occurring as you read this, from employees sharing passwords across non-secure channels to leaving their laptop open as they take a short break. Unfortunately, employee data misuse is almost omnipresent, and whilst the vast majority of cases won’t result in any harm done, the threat needs to be taken seriously from the ground up.

So, why is employee data misuse such a big problem? And what’s the root cause?

Digital transformation has been a step-change for industry, with businesses big and small harnessing the power of tech to scale their operations. And data has played a pivotal role in this, helping brands accelerate and grow.

worried woman sat at computer

As businesses have come to rely on data more and more, such assets have become increasingly valuable. And given that employees have ready access to data sets as part of day-to-day operations, the risk of loss, theft, and misuse has risen at a considerable pace.

Over the past few years, in particular, utilising data has gone from being a nice-to-have to an essential, with firms relying on information to maintain their market position. And with this ever-present reliance on data, businesses need to accept the fact that they’re exposed to the threat of employee data misuse, and take a proactive approach to mitigating the risks.

Employee Data Misuse: What’s the Motive?

From an employer’s perspective, the notion of data misuse being committed by employees may be difficult to stomach. After all, you’ve placed a lot of trust in your people, and expect them to treat the company’s physical and digital assets with respect, caution, and integrity.

In the world of data misuse, however, things are rarely black and white. There are a whole host of reasons why an employee may expose company data, which can make mitigating the risk that much more difficult.

When we think of employee data misuse, there are three main motives that can be behind it: malicious intent, non-malicious intent, and accidental. Let’s take a closer look at what these motivations mean in practical terms.

Malicious Intent

When an employee steals, sabotages, corrupts, or falsifies company data, this is classified as malicious intent. They have deliberately set out to harm the business, either for personal gain or as retribution for past grievances.

Data misuse of this kind can be exceptionally damaging, leading to financial loss, reputational damage, and in some cases, legal proceedings. Happily, it’s also the least common form of employee data misuse, though it’s still something you need to be aware of.

secretary on her phone

Non-Malicious Intent

Non-malicious intent represents instances when employees put company data at risk through personal actions, but without wanting to cause harm to the business. It encompasses illegal acts, such as copying company data onto a personal device, without the awareness that they’re breaking the law or putting the business at risk.

This form of data misuse is much more prevalent than malicious activity, with many employees unwittingly breaking the law when it comes to handling their company’s digital assets. It also demonstrates the need for stringent data protection and usage policies, with clear guidelines on how employees should use, store, and manage the assets at their disposal.

Accidental

Accidental is the most common form of data misuse in the workplace. It’s used to describe instances in which an employee inadvertently puts company data at risk, without straying over the line of illegality. An example of this would be attaching the wrong file to an email sent to an external party, exposing sensitive company assets as a result.

Accidental data misuse is prevalent across the board and can be difficult to put a lid on. Generally, it comes from a lack of training, awareness, and experience, as well as other factors such as poor processes or being overworked. As touched on above, accidental data misuse can be controlled by implementing and enforcing a robust data management policy.

How to Protect Your Business from the Threat of Data Misuse

While there’s no silver-bullet solution to preventing data misuse, there are steps you can take to mitigate the risks and take a proactive approach to information safety. Below, we’ve put together a series of best-practice tips on how to protect your digital and physical data assets.

  • Be prepared to adjust security and access provision for your employees – the potential impact of data misuse is now so great that companies need to take a tough line on management, security, and access. Rather than operating an open-door policy, consider tailoring your data access in line with business hierarchy. This improves accountability and mitigates risk, while ensuring that your assets can only ever be accessed by those that you explicitly trust.
  • Introduce physical access controls – in our digital-focused world, it’s easy to overlook the simple measures that can make a difference to the security of your business. For example, if you want to guarantee maximum security for your data, introducing physical access controls can be an effective measure. Introducing key card access points at different points around your premises can amp up security, as well as improving accountability and making it easier to trace personnel who have misused your data.
colleagues having discussion
  • Establish a robust data governance policy – data is among your organisation’s greatest assets, so outlining how to protect it is essential. A data governance policy should set out how data is kept secure within the business, as well as the steps you expect employees to take to uphold this. Align your data control policy with the unique requirements and limitations of your business, and consider things like GDPR and data protection laws to firm up your guidelines.
  • Create a data inventory to prioritise protection – knowing what data you have and where it’s stored can help you to control and manage how it’s used. Unruly ‘big data’ sets that lack organisation are easier to corrupt and mismanage, so silo and segment your assets to keep better tabs on the information. This will also make it much easier to spot data misuse anomalies before they grow to become bigger problems.

Have you enjoyed this guide? Click here for more guides and features from the Swype team. If you’d like to learn about our innovative access cards and business security solutions, visit the homepage or give our team a call on 01744 815475.

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