Human error the leading cause of data loss

Computer viruses may be revered as the epitome of corporate data loss but it’s human error that most often causes the problem.

That’s the conclusion a whopping 88 per cent of polled NT system managers from around the globe conveyed to Computer Associates (CA) when queried on the issue.

Only a mere three per cent of respondents believe viruses are more detrimental.

An accidental deletion occurs when employees with access to sensitive company data delete information without realizing they are working on a network – and not a local – drive. Such deletions are not collected by the Windows Recycle Bin.

The results of the CA study, conducted by the American Business Research Corp. last September, suggests that accidental deletions wreak 30 times more destruction on important data compared to viruses, becoming the leading source of corporate data loss.

CA estimated the cost of virus attacks to corporations at about half a billion U.S. dollars annually, which means accidental deletions are responsible for US$15 billion each year.

Phil Proffit is not surprised by the results. What did surprise the Los Angeles-based director of research for Broadcasters Network International is the corporate world’s lack of insight on the problem.

“People attribute data loss to a variety of things such as viruses, which is significant, but when you look at it against the context of accidental deletions, it’s truly insignificant,” he said. “The numbers (of accidental deletions) are astounding…what I find truly surprising is how little the corporations are aware of the impact on their bottom line. It’s a very significant problem that affects their return on investment.”

While corporations arm themselves to the proverbial teeth with anti-virus software, few are cognizant of this cancer within, and even of intentional deletion.

“It’s the ultimate Trojan horse,” Proffit quipped. “We see all the press on worms and viruses such as Melissa and it’s a very sexy subject for the press to cover, so people rush out and buy all this anti-virus software thinking they’re bullet-proof but they don’t consider their workers madly deleting files that eat into their profitability.

“We didn’t get into intentional deletions in this study but there are future studies that will be addressing that.”

Also from the CA study, 81 per cent of system managers said protecting company data is one of the most important aspects of their job. Despite regular backup initiatives, the poll showed backups to be perceived as an unreliable solution. Moreover, almost 50 per cent of the respondents lack confidence to backup data since they don’t believe in the efficacy of backups, which in turn revealed nearly all of the polled system managers had the unfortunate experience of backup failure. Contributing factors such as critical data loss between backups (54 per cent), media failure or human error leading to backup unreliability (26 per cent), and individual workstations often being omitted from the backup schedule (14 per cent) were all cited.

“Regular backup is vital but the problem is one of putting all your eggs in one basket,” Proffit continued. “There are utilities system administrators can use to catch deletions made on the network when an individual makes a deletion.

“This accidental deletion happens because the user is unaware of the fact they’re not off the server at their workstation and that it (the deletion) won’t be caught by the recycle bin.”

Proffit advised utilizing both software and hardware solutions that are designed to deal with deletions.

“It’s a lack of training on the part of the users and that’s hard to handle especially for a large corporation,” he said. “Tape backup mirroring and software material allows companies to bypass training their employees…educating users and limiting permission for those accessing the critical data can have an impact. But again, there is software and hardware solutions that are designed to deal with this.”

To date, no study of this kind has been conducted in Canada. But Proffit figured Canada’s corporations are subject to the same problem.

“I imagine the problem is universal in its affect on corporations no matter where they are,” he said. “A recent study in England found a similar situation – that accidental deletions was a much larger problem than previously thought. I’m sure the situation is a significant one in Canada too.”