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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

What Access Do Your Contractors Have?
Plenty of technologies are available for limiting contractor access to data, DLP Experts' Thorkelson says. "Identity access management and those kinds of technologies ... why not use these technologies that keep data from being shared with other people?" he says.

More thorough vetting of contractors and employees is another best practice organizations should adopt during the hiring process, Neohapsis' Hubbard says. "A lot of organizations feel there's a one-size-fits-all in the background check process," he says. But that's not the case, so organizations should stay on top of what background checks providers use to investigate employees and contractors who will be handling sensitive data, he says.

According to Carnegie Mellon University’s CERT Insider Threat Center, prevention of an insider attack or leak is key. "At the least, you need to organize a well-thought-out insider threat program that can help protect you and deter other incidents like workplace violence," says Mike Theis, chief counterintelligence expert at Carnegie Mellon University’s CERT Insider Threat Center, in a recent interview with Dark Reading. Theis declined to be interviewed for this article, citing the ongoing investigation of the NSA and Snowden leak case.

For mitigating insider threats, CERT publishes the Common Sense Guide To Insider Threat, which provides best practices, such as documenting and consistently enforcing policies and controls, adopting least privilege and enforcing separation of duties, and incorporating insider threat awareness into security training programs.

"If someone might be turning bad, there still is an opportunity to stop" and prevent them from acting, Theis says.

Remotely located users or contractors are not always well-monitored. Snowden, for example, worked for Booz Allen on the NSA contract as part of a small unit in Hawaii. "Management has the responsibility for oversight of its workforce members, but, unfortunately, they don't [often] take an active role," Hubbard says.

In the case of contractors working for the intelligence community, it's difficult to spot a leak, however. "They're going to have access," Riskive's Foster says. "There are a lot of processes in place on the government side and on the contractor side to safely handle that data," but if they have legitimate access, it's difficult to determine foul play.

How Are You Monitoring User Activity?
Reassessing user behavior and movement of data is another key best practice to helping minimize the risk of a big, sensitive insider leak.

Vulnerability assessments can help pinpoint potential danger zones or gaps, experts say, and data governance and specific data-handling processes are key.

Identity access management and data loss prevention (DLP) can help here. DLP products can be configured to prevent physical printing of certain documents, for instance, and USB ports can be disabled to prevent siphoning onto removable drives.

"Remote access systems don't have excellent reporting, so you'll typically have to dump logging and auditing off into a security event monitoring system and do some trending over time," Neohapsis' Hubbard says. "If you have some sort of centralized auditing tool, that's something very easy to start identifying thresholds for worker activity," he says.

But most of these controls are looking for outliers, not authorized users performing authorized actions, he says. Critical or classified files can be more closely monitored, too.

The trade-off, of course, is productivity. "The more you lock down environments, the more you damage workflow," Hubbard says.

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Add Your Comment" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message

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
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/...
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: 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?
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: 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.
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