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What is Shadow IT? Definition & Examples

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Shadow IT defined

Shadow IT is any information technology an employee uses without IT approval, including software, applications, services and devices. Unauthorized tools can put a company at risk of compliance violations or data breaches.

Unfortunately, the rapid adoption of cloud services has made shadow IT more prevalent, exposing organizations to security hazards.


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Examples of shadow IT

Shadow IT consists of unsanctioned applications and hardware, with the software typically being well-known brand names. 

Some examples of shadow IT applications and cloud-based services are:

  • Slack, Trello and other productivity tools
  • Gmail, Drive and other Google Suite elements
  • Dropbox, Box and other peer-to-peer collaboration tools
  • Apple AirDrop and other Bluetooth-based sharing tools
  • WhatsApp and other messaging apps
  • Microsoft Office 365 tools

Another way for shadow IT to creep into an organization is through devices. A few examples of shadow IT hardware include:

  • Personal laptops
  • Tablets
  • Smartphones
  • USB flash drives
  • Hard disk drives (HDDs)
  • PCs

Why does shadow IT occur in businesses?

Shadow IT occurs in businesses because employees may need to work differently than their organization’s current tools allow them to do. In fact, a recent study found that 32% of workers use unapproved communication and collaboration tools. 

For example, an organization may block specific actions on an application, so an employee downloads a different tool to complete the work. Another example may be that a vendor uses a particular collaboration software, so an employee downloads it, too, to communicate with them. 

While downloading unapproved apps and software isn’t typically malicious, shadow IT does introduce various risks.

What are the risks of shadow IT?

There are four primary risks of shadow IT:

  1. Security gaps. Unsanctioned file sharing and collaboration tools can create situations where employees move IP intentionally or unintentionally without security knowing.

  1. Operational or security concerns related to banned apps. Banned technology may not comply with privacy laws, regulations or a company’s data protection standards.

  1. Inefficient operations. If different employees unknowingly purchase duplicate or similar solutions, it can create “app sprawl,” wasting company time and money.

  1. Loss of data access: If an employee stores company files on a personal drive, the business loses access to those assets.

While shadow IT can be a large security hazard, if a company manages it appropriately, it can drive employee efficiency and performance.

What are the benefits of shadow IT?

The principal benefit of shadow IT is the boost to productivity and collaboration. Business leaders also see employees’ ingenuity as critical in fostering a culture of speed, agility, flexibility and innovation. 

Security teams can harness this advantage of shadow IT while safeguarding company data by: 

  • Streamlining the technology procurement process to eliminate bottlenecks
  • Using security tools that help them maintain control over system permissions
  • Implementing a comprehensive data protection solution that monitors all data movement — whether to unsanctioned or sanctioned apps
  • Educating employees on the risks of shadow IT

Establishing constructive ways of addressing shadow IT can promote efficiency while protecting the enterprise.

The emerging threat of mirror IT

Whereas shadow IT focuses on unsanctioned technology, a threat called mirror IT is emerging in software your company has approved.

Mirror IT is a sanctioned application where employees have personal and professional accounts and use the personal one to share data insecurely. Examples of this technology include Google Drive, Gmail, Slack and OneDrive. 

The best way to detect mirror IT is with a comprehensive data protection solution that monitors all data movement and automatically prioritizes security risks based on the context of the file and user — not just the destination someone moves it to.

Protect your organization from the risks of shadow IT

Managing shadow IT and mirror IT can be challenging. With a data protection solution like Incydr that monitors data across sanctioned and unsanctioned software and devices, you can identify suspicious activity, review the risks that matter and respond confidently.

Learn more about how Incydr detects and resolves data risk threats today.

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