Shadow IT refers to a trend where users adopt IT tools and solutions outside of the knowledge or control of the official IT department. If the IT department is aware or has policies that allow systems which they don’t manage to be used, then it’s not shadow IT, but if IT doesn’t know about it and offers a comparable service then it is. For example, most IT departments are responsible for providing email. If a user chooses to use Gmail or some other email provider, then IT isn’t able to manage the risk of corporate data getting lost or stolen, email spam, or phishing attacks.
The use of shadow IT can be hard to detect. Although many agencies have network policies blocking certain sites or types of traffic, the sheer quantity and diversity of the services available can easily overwhelm an already overworked IT department. So why should they even bother? If the user is able to find a solution that works on their own, more power to them, right? Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. When users circumvent IT, then something goes wrong – the services goes down, they lose data that was only hosted there, someone steals their credentials, and copies all of the sensitive data – they look to IT for help. This leads to conversations like, “I know I’m not supposed to do this, but will you please help me make sure nobody else was able to access those files on Dropbox?”
From our recent State of Government IT Management and Monitoring Survey, the primary concern regarding the use of shadow IT is security issues. And the use of shadow IT is in full force, with 90% of respondents seeing shadow IT being used in their environment today and 58% expect to see it continue to be used.
Not only was shadow IT not a top focus area, it actually ranked at the bottom, with only 12% saying it was very important (versus 72% indicating cyber security was very important). Given that 90% of federal and civilian agencies believe shadow IT is in use in their environment, it’s the second ranking area that IT has the least control over, and the highest negative consequences of shadow IT are security issues – it’s shocking that shadow IT isn’t getting more focus.
How to respond
To create a strategy for managing shadow IT, you need to understand why your users are looking to it. Even in networks with no direct connectivity to the Internet, computers systems and critical data can easily be misused and the risk for comprise is real. To manage all of these risks, you need to understand why your users go around you and make it easier for them to work with you instead.
From the survey, we saw that the IT acquisition process is the main trigger for shadow IT, followed by perceived lack of innovation by the IT department. Of course, there is a long tail of other reasons and you should survey your users to understand exactly why they are using systems outside of you purview and specifically what those systems are.
One of the questions we strove to unravel during this survey was what to expect in the future, and as it turns out, there is a lot of confusion around what should be done about shadow IT as a whole. About a quarter of those surveyed believe it should be eliminated, another quarter thinks it should be embraced and the remaining half were somewhere in between.
Although this split may appear to be conflicting, it actually makes sense. Some environments are too sensitive to tolerate any IT services that are not strictly controlled by IT. However, in many agencies, particularly civilian ones, the IT department has an opportunity to identify ways of providing better service to their customers by understanding why their users are looking elsewhere. Once a system, service, or tool has been evaluated by IT and put on the acceptable list, it’s no longer considered shadow IT. If IT can leverage these opportunities, they might be able to both deliver better service and create more productive relationships in their agencies.
What is clear, however, is that the more visibility you have in to your environment, the more confident you will be in your ability to protect your agency against the negative consequences of shadow IT.
Full survey results: