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3/12/2010
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Ex-TSA Employee Indicted For Tampering With Database Of Terrorist Suspects

Case serves as a wake-up call about the potential dangers of malicious insider access to sensitive data

A federal grand jury has indicted a former employee of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) for trying to corrupt a database of terrorism suspects in an inside job that many within the information security industry say is a stark reminder of how important it is to track insider access to sensitive data stores.

Douglas James Duchack, 46, faced charges on Wednesday that he attempted to tamper with TSA's Colorado Springs Operations Center (CSOC) systems just after he was terminated from his job as a data analyst in October.

Duchack had been in charge of processing new information from the Terrorist Screening Database and U.S. Marshal's Service Warrant Information Network database to update TSA's systems.

During the two-week period after being informed of his termination, Duchack allegedly placed malcode into the CSOC server containing data from the former database he was charged with in an intentional attempt to cause damage to the computer and database. The U.S. Department of Justice reports that he faces up to 10 years in federal prison and up to $500,000 in fines if he's convicted.

According to Slavik Markovich, chief technology officer at Sentrigo, this episode is a good example of why it is so important to monitor user activities, especially among IT users with elevated privileges. "Knowledgeable insiders -- especially those with privileged access like systems administrators, developers, or DBAs -- can easily bypass many of the standard security tools that exist in most organizations," Markovich says.

He says that in a lot of cases, network monitoring tools can be thwarted by encrypting transactions with the database hosts, while developers have the ability to plant logic bombs and backdoors within the code they have access to. Without real-time monitoring of what these users actually are doing within a database, organizations are blind to suspicious activities once the user is logged into the system.

"If you're just relying on username and password credentials to protect your systems, you're making a big mistake," says Phil Neray, vice president of security strategy of Guardium, an IBM company. "You need to find other protection mechanisms. If you're monitoring a database, for example, and someone is executing a command on that database that is not consistent with that role, you can have a policy that will alert the organization or block it."

In Duchack's case, the TSA's Office of Inspection and IT Security did manage to detect Duchack's illicit behavior, though details of how the detection was made were not released. However, Markovich says for every Duchack there are countless others within government agencies and the corporate world who manage to get away with similar database abuse due to lack of oversight.

"The analyst had access to the databases because of his job and probably tried to plant some destructive code in the database," Markovich says. "In this case they were caught, but more often than not, this will only be detected after the fact."

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