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NSA Leak Ushers In New Era Of The Insider Threat

A determined user or contractor hell-bent on leaking data can't be stopped, but businesses should revisit their user access policies and protections

If the National Security Agency (NSA) can't stop sensitive data leaks out of its organization, then who can?

That's the question dogging many enterprises in the wake of revelations that a former technical assistant at the CIA and then contractor for NSA siphoned and leaked classified data about an alleged secretive surveillance program being conducted by the NSA that mines Internet firms' data from their servers. Edward Snowden dropped the bombshell, including slides from an NSA PowerPoint on the so-called NSA PRISM program, before being fired by NSA contractor Booz Allen Hamilton this week after admitting he was a source of the leaks.

While there are still many questions about just how much Snowden himself leaked to the press, how much access he really had to the classified program, and how he took it, the case opens a new chapter on insider threat risks. Snowden is not the first insider to drop sensitive information externally, and his leak has some parallels to that of Bradley Manning's case. But the massive disclosure of classified and top secret NSA information represents a whole new scale of information leakage that security experts say could be the point of no return for keeping data secret in this new age of disclosure that in large part is driven by online access and abundant opportunity for dissemination.

"I think this is another milestone, and it's going to become much more prevalent over the next 10 years -- the dissemination of sensitive information," says James C. Foster, founder and CEO of Riskive, and who also once worked for Booz Allen. "It's going to be a significant challenge in keeping sensitive information in the right hands. As we've seen with WikiLeaks and Snowden, if one person sets their mind to it, they will grab information and find a way to disseminate it."

Most enterprises don't have the same level of sensitive and classified information to protect that the NSA does, but the core challenges of stopping a determined insider from leaking what he or she knows or has access to are the same: There's no guaranteed way to stop it.

"You would hope that the National Security Agency would be really good at keeping secrets ... but it seems someone let the cat out of the bag on this occasion with awkward results," says Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant at Sophos. "The truth is that organizations big and small can still make mistakes or trust someone they shouldn't have to keep their sensitive data private."

Foster says it's an eerily similar conundrum to preventing an individual terrorist willing to sacrifice himself for a cause. "Unfortunately, the reality is similar to the difficulty in stopping individual motivated terrorists. It's hard to identify an individual and prevent" them from carrying out a leak if they are willing to face the consequences, he says.

According to The Guardian, which first broke the story after receiving information from Snowden, the whistleblower wrote this in a note with the NSA documents he handed to the publication: "I understand that I will be made to suffer for my actions ... [but] I will be satisfied if the federation of secret law, unequal pardon and irresistible executive powers that rule the world that I love are revealed even for an instant."

[Massive information-sharing program involves Google, Facebook, and other technology heavyweights, top secret document details. But NSA looks to have acted inside the law. See NSA PRISM Creates Stir, But Appears Legal.]

Bruce Schneier, renowned security expert and CTO of BT Counterpane, says if your organization isn't doing anything illegal, it has nothing to fear from whistleblowers such as Snowden. But you can't stop a determined insider from leaking information. "In general, you have to trust people inside your system," he said in an email exchange. "They can betray that trust. You can mitigate that risk by trusting them less, but that's about it."

NSA's leak raises more questions about who has access to what and why, and how a top secret program could be leaked by a 29-year-old at a relatively low-level position who had worked with NSA as a contractor over the past four years, with Booz Allen, Dell, and other contractors. And just how the most secretive agency in the government could allow such a leak to occur has baffled most security experts: "I'm just in shock that [Snowden] was able to [do this]," says Jared Thorkelson, principal with DLP Experts, an expert on insider threat issues.

The NSA leak also provides some lessons for businesses. "These are all the same concerns for commercial enterprises; It's not that different. The NSA has a different set of secrets, but [organizations] all have the same types of scenarios you need to prevent this type of information leaking outside or falling into the wrong hands. Those technologies are used in both the public and private sectors," Thorkelson says.

So it's time to revisit some controls around sensitive data and employees and contractors, security experts say. Here are some key questions to consider:

What Access Do Your Own Users Have?
If Snowden indeed had authorized access to the NSA classified information he leaked, then catching him the act of attempting to or somehow accessing it would be difficult. "Authorized users are authorized users," says Andy Hubbard, senior security consultant at Neohapsis. The data he grabbed may have come from an external source, such as a reporting server or logging system, he says -- systems that wouldn't have as many data-extraction controls, he says.

Ideally, organizations need to establish access controls for their sensitive data. But that initially involves identifying the sensitive data, he says.

They also should adopt least privilege access policies where users and contractors are only allowed to see and access data they need for their jobs. "You need to set aside a little time to see who has access to what and actually identify specific access controls," he says. A user audit is a handy tool for this, according to Hubbard.

The bottom line is that in many cases, users have way too much access to data. "Systems administrators, in particular, although low level, typically have the highest access to systems and data, given they manage those systems. Without implementing adequate role-based access controls based on least-privileged access, companies and organizations are granting god-like access to their systems administrators," says Eric Chiu, president & founder of HyTrust.

Next Page: Limiting contractor access/ Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Executive Editor of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio

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User Rank: Apprentice
7/2/2013 | 11:39:59 PM
re: NSA Leak Ushers In New Era Of The Insider Threat
The problem is that there are few technologies that combine human behavioral risk analytics with traditional access and activity patterns of source systems. Finding patterns of risk apart from Peer Group activity is key, as well as visualizing anomalies with user behavior (Geolocation, login times, large file transfers/downloads, unusual data sources accessed, etc.). SIEM's or log file consolidation tools don't do this. GuruCul has created a platform (GuruCul Risk Analytics, or GRA) that creates user profile and directory meta data, and then correlates that (Hadoop) to all data sources accessed. Then they run self-learning algorithms with 232 attributes to show risky behavior. They could have seen these unusual access patterns and flagged them as anomalies to remediate. I suspect this emerging domain of "Security Intelligence" will really become a focal point going forward.
James McCabe
James McCabe,
User Rank: Apprentice
6/28/2013 | 10:09:39 PM
re: NSA Leak Ushers In New Era Of The Insider Threat
The problem is that too much access is given to someone that doesn't need it. Why does an analyst need Root access to an OS? Analyst should be required to access data through specific applications. Not directly. And an Administrator/Root/Superuser never needs to "see" data. They ara paid to manage an environment, not look at data, so systems should never decrypt for superusers. Oh did I say decrypt? What? Your data at rest isn't even encrypted? Well let's start there then! Encrypt data and surround it with strong user/role based rules that only decrypt for those that need to see or machine user IDs that actually touch data.
User Rank: Strategist
6/14/2013 | 4:52:54 PM
re: NSA Leak Ushers In New Era Of The Insider Threat
The NSA is breaking the 4th amendment to the Constitution, and when someone reports it that is an insider threat? Who gave NSA the authority to break the law?
User Rank: Strategist
6/13/2013 | 7:39:31 PM
re: NSA Leak Ushers In New Era Of The Insider Threat
The NSA leak, and tech's response to it, pose a great conundrum. One part would be the want to lock down information even further so it can't be leaked. On another is keeping it open enough so that when something which is highly questionable (NSA spying on Americans) is able to be leaked it is able to be. The 'you have nothing to fear if you're not doing anything' meme is disturbing to see in Dark Reading, as it encourages your readers to give up their rights without any questions (be it to the government or their employers) in the name of tighter security.
User Rank: Apprentice
6/13/2013 | 12:22:30 PM
re: NSA Leak Ushers In New Era Of The Insider Threat
It's difficult but definitely not impossible to determine foul play even if there is legitimate access. And it is not necessary to "lock down" processes to the deteriment of business. This is the whole point of technology like Digital Guardian (Verdasys). Here's an example of how another federal agency more then likely would have known about NSA's insider. https://www.verdasys.com/blog/...
A Startup With NSA Roots Wants Silently Disarming Cyberattacks on the Wire to Become the Norm
Kelly Jackson Higgins, Executive Editor at Dark Reading,  5/11/2021
Cybersecurity: What Is Truly Essential?
Joshua Goldfarb, Director of Product Management at F5,  5/12/2021
3 Cybersecurity Myths to Bust
Etay Maor, Sr. Director Security Strategy at Cato Networks,  5/11/2021
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