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The biggest threats to the security of financial institutions' electronic systems are the mistakes that people make, according to a survey (pdf) of banks' IT security.

The survey by consultancy Deloitte has found that customers are the common weak link in allowing the viruses, worms, and hacking attacks on to financial services companies' IT systems.

Deloitte surveyed senior information technology executives at many of the top 100 global financial services firms. It found that 65 per cent of firms had experienced external IT security breaches in the last year.

The security problems plaguing banks most are viruses and worms, email attacks such as spam, and those attacks focused directly on the customer. The common factor in all of these problems is people, according to the research.

"All of these breaches are perpetrated via the customer," it said. "For example, a customer receives an electronic, official-looking request on what appears to be their bank's letterhead, requesting sensitive information (eg account information, passwords, etc). By emailing back that information, the customer has effectively granted the crook access to their personal financial data and to the financial institution."

"You can have the best technical systems in place but they are unlikely to operate effectively unless you educate people on their obligations and how to fulfil them," said Mike Maddison, head of security and privacy services at Deloitte in the UK.

While recognising that customer security was a major issue, two thirds of the companies said they did not want to be responsible for the customer's IT security because of the enormity of such a task.

The survey also highlighted the problems that are caused by the kinds of close business partnerships that are becoming increasingly common as outsourcing becomes more popular.

"These incidents highlight the risks inherent in third party and business partner relationships. In the eyes of the media and the public, the organisation that owns the data is always at fault, even if the problem originated with a service provider or a business partner," it said.

"Financial institutions rarely, if ever, escape media and regulatory scrutiny when such incidents occur. It is the responsibility of the financial institution to manage its third-party relationships, including those with business partners and vendors. The onus is on these organisations who value their brands to protect their data in an end to end manner, in all formats and in all media, whether that data is within the organisation's premises or within the premises of a business partner or service provider," it said.

The survey discovered that such security problems may not be solved soon, though. It discovered that most senior company management only pay lip service to solving the problems. In 66 per cent of the surveyed companies, an information security strategy is considered a "key imperative" at executive management level, and 63 per cent of companies have such a strategy.

But only at ten per cent of the companies is the strategy "led and embraced" by business leaders, according to survey respondents.

"Herein lies the paradox: even though information security incidents are grabbing the attention of business executives and boards, these individuals do not yet feel that they 'own' the problem; in their estimation, the execution of solutions are the mandate of IT," it said.

Copyright © 2007, OUT-LAW.com

OUT-LAW.COM is part of international law firm Pinsent Masons.

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