The latest research report from renowned research institute Ponemon has revealed a few big surprises about the priorities of IT and security professionals in 2014 and their plans to deal with today’s cyber threats.

Firstly, the not-so-surprising results:

APTs are the biggest threat priority for organizations in 2014

Advanced persistent threats are nasty and powerful attacks that are creating huge challenges for businesses – and IT security pros are struggling to defend the endpoint against these targeted attacks. 81% say it is difficult or very difficult to achieve endpoint security and most are spending more time on endpoint security compared to last year.

Windows 7/8 is creating some challenges for IT pros in managing user profiles and privileges

Those that use Windows 7/8 find it more difficult than those using other operating systems (71% find it difficult compared to 58% of non-Windows 7/8 users). Those tasks that are most difficult usually take up more time, and this is reflected by the percentage of time dedicated to securing the endpoint, which takes up just over half the time of IT pros (52% of total time) compared to 44% of non-Windows 7/8 users.

The likely cause of this challenge is Microsoft’s secure yet inflexible UAC, and the app store approach in Windows 8. We talk to many companies that have struggled with the polarized options of standard and admin users, which can make it more difficult to manage users without the right technology in place to manage privileged access.

The 3 biggest surprises:

1) Admin use is rising

  • An average of 31% of staff have admin privileges
  • 40% say the percentage of users with admin rights is increasing year on year

Despite all the evidence about the dangers of admin rights, it is surprising that almost a third of employees have admin rights, and even more concerning is that this is going up, not down.

The Microsoft Vulnerabilities Study 2013 revealed that 92% of critical vulnerabilities could be mitigated by the removal of admin rights. So remove admin rights and you massively reduce the attack vector.

The rise in admin users could be explained by the fact that only 9% rate end user experience as important when planning a security project. If the user experience isn’t fully considered, the organization usually has a very inflexible security posture. This creates a big temptation for admin rights to be given back, as users demand the rights to be able to function in their roles, which is likely to result in project failure.

Lack of visibility is creting big challenges

  • 55% have either zero or low visibility of employee behavior, application access and software downloads

IT pros are struggling to manage their security solutions because of poor insight into user behavior. Without the tools to identify who and what is reliant on admin rights, coupled with a rising number of admins, this will also contribute to the challenge.

3) Importance of minimizing user privileges still not fully understood

When it comes to mitigation strategies, minimizing users with admin rights is ranked just 4/10 in terms of effectiveness by those that have a solution in place. This perception is a both a surprise and a concern.

I cannot stress enough the importance of removing admin rights, and the danger they represent. I would go as far as to say that giving out admin rights is tantamount to professional negligence.

That said, it’s not easy as organizations are facing an impossible compromise. If you give out admin rights, it punches a hole in your security posture, but if you lock all your users down to a standard user account, the desktops become increasingly difficult to manage, the users require more support and productivity is severely impacted. This is why it is vital to have the right technology in place to manage user privileges.

Industry analysts like the Council on Cyber Security and Governments including the UK and Australia all recommend privilege management and application whitelisting as among the top 5 most essential security strategies, based on analysis of real-world attack data.

The Ponemon research shows that 92% of companies have up to date antivirus software, and yet this is ranked at number 30 by the Australian Department of Defense – meaning that there are 29 other techniques that are more effective!

We would always advocate a layered security strategy and the combination and priority of technologies may differ for each specific organization – but it’s clear that the balance of adopted mitigation strategies has some way to go before it falls in line with best-practice recommendations.