The bane of IT departments: You

July 17, 2012: 12:36 PM ET

Most of the headaches for IT departments come not from elusive super hackers, but from simple user error. The challenge is to protect users from themselves.

By Richard Nieva

FORTUNE -- As consumer devices like smartphones and tablets continue to invade the workplace, how can companies' technology teams make sure those gadgets are secure enough for big business?

The answer is, it's complicated. At least that was the consensus at a panel on device security at Fortune's Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen, Colorado on Tuesday. For many of the panelists, the problem is less Mission: Impossible, and more an exercise in prudence. "There is no such thing as total security. It doesn't exist," said John Hering, CEO of Lookout, an Android mobile security company. "It's protecting the user from himself."

That's because most of the headaches for IT departments come not from elusive super hackers, but from simple user error. One move toward a solution is to have IT teams really study user behavior, and identify holes so companies aren't "fighting from behind," said Omar Khan, CEO of NQ mobile, which deals with both consumer and enterprise customers. Behavioral study can also help identify what is legitimate -- albeit possibly careless -- use, versus the less common virus attack, says Laura Mather, co-founder and chief strategist for Silver Tale, a company that uses web analytics to help prevent cyber crime.

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The move to the "cloud" -- wherein companies store data on servers that it doesn't own or manage itself -- has shifted some of the tensions of the problem. A typical enterprise employee might find it convenient to share an important document with a coworker via a service like Dropbox, not realizing the security lapses that could occur while the data is being transported between the cloud and users. Hering says the answer is in building a team that can be completely cloud-dependent, while still having direct control over management. He points to the streaming music service Pandora as a good example, whose operations are mainly cloud-based.

The challenge isn't exactly new. Todd McKinnon, CEO of Okta, a cloud security company, contended that smartphones and tablets were the first devices that have gone from home to work, since laptops were work tools that employees brought home. An interjection from the audience argued otherwise: "PCs went from home to work," said Michael Dell, CEO of Dell (DELL). "I was there."

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