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Interview: Microsoft's Ann Johnson on digital empathy and zero trust

29 Jul 2020

'Digital empathy' is a new way of describing the age-old balance between user experience and IT functionality within cybersecurity.

prior to the pandemic, few companies would have issued devices to employees with the expectation that employees would take those devices home at all, let alone for months.

With 89% of companies sending staff home during COVID-19 lockdowns, and 42% of employees staying remote, the challenge to balance productivity and security risk through cloud and remote environments remains a challenge.

We spoke to Microsoft Cybersecurity Solutions Group corporate vice president Ann Johnson to find out more about digital empathy and its relationship with zero trust.

In current times, organisations need to give employees access to corporate systems, keep employees productive, and acknowledge that employees are juggling more responsibilities at home, like educating their children.

“At Microsoft, we quickly realised that many organisations' traditional security controls did not operate within the cloud, and were therefore irrelevant when people started working from home  – for example, on-premise firewalls were not going to serve customers very well.”

"We also realised that people are more stressed and more susceptible to cyber attacks, particularly phishing events. We saw a substantial increase in phishing lures related to Coronavirus, playing on people’s fears and creating a sense of urgency.”

In an isolated home environment, it may not be as easy to check the legitimacy of emails or suspicious incidents with colleagues. This isolation could potentially amplify employee mistakes.

“Digital empathy means creating an environment and rolling out tools that are forgiving employee mistakes,” Johnson explains.

“There are no hard physical connections so the systems are based on a risk score. Organisations helping the user to be secure without subjecting the user to an onerous security experience.”

So if an employee clicked on a phishing email, security tools would be able to prevent corporate data loss, and leaders would empathise with the stress that employees are under.

"Organisations need to continually train users because phishing attacks are getting more sophisticated. But we also need to have the systems in place that protect them. when users do make mistake, systems protect the end-user and protect the company.”

Digital empathy is inherently related to zero trust, because employees may need to access corporate systems from devices that have never been seen on corporate networks before. 

“The entire principle of zero trust is that you trust nothing. That’s the first thing that we tell organisations: they must use multi-factor authentication for 100% of employees 100% of the time. That is the first control to put in place as part of that zero trust architecture" 

She continues, “You’re assigning a risk score based on the user, based on the data they’re trying to access, based on the device they’re using, and based on the application they’re using.”

Zero trust can also take into account geolocation, Johnson explains. 

“If someone logs in from Auckland, and five minutes later, they're trying to log in from Sydney or Singapore. Obviously, that didn't happen. One of those things is incorrect, or maybe both of them and you're assigning a risk score continually to that experience.” 

“You can then adjust the privileges that an employee has based on the risk and what an employee needs to be productive. You’re also showing the employee empathy for the work experience because you're making it very easy for them to use the tools they need to use, and all the devices they have available with your corporate applications.”

“Organisations don’t have to continually think about security and compliance and privacy because it's embedded in the tooling. It's transparent for the user, and it's what I would call very fault-tolerant.”

Zero trust and digital empathy can also go a long way to belaying concerns such as insider risk. 

Johnson says that insider risk can materialise in several ways: it could be as innocent as a family member using a work laptop when an employee has left their device unlocked – an understandable situation when people are working from home. 

If that family member accidentally does something that introduces security risks such as malware, it comes down to having the right tools and having an empathetic response.

“Those are the types of things that when you think about companies and devices. I would have confidence that my corporate-issued device is strong enough to defend against that kind of threat, even if someone came in on my home network. But if someone's on their personal device, there's a different kind of risk.”

Johnson adds that the main benefit of digital empathy and zero trust is all about user benefit so that a user can focus on their job.

“The ability to have a seamless, transparent and ease of user experience is the main driver. Digital empathy also drives improvement for how you're running your security operations centre (SOC) because the admins can take advantage again of systems that could eventually self-heal and self-correct.”

While there is still a long way to go before self-healing and self-correcting systems are commonplace, automation is certainly part of that journey.

For now, though, organisations can start implementing digital empathy in several ways.

"Start deploying a zero trust architecture. That is really one of the best things you can do to drive digital empathy because you're removing all the onus and all the burden, not just from the end-user, but also from your SOC team. SOC teams and human threat hunters need to be able to validate risks, but zero trust remotes many manual controls. Instead, you're going to have a risk-based system that actually does a lot of decision-making," says Johnson.

“Zero trust is one of the first things any company can do when they're considering how they're going to implement digital empathy across their environment because those systems are built to actually assume the risk and make decisions based on the risk.”

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