If An FBI Analyst Can Steal National Secrets, What Are Your Workers Lifting?

Looking back on the <a href="http://www.informationweek.com/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=199500751">story about the former Marine and FBI analyst</a> who stole classified information from both the White House and the FBI's own database, I think there are some important lessons to be learned from this one.

Sharon Gaudin, Contributor

May 15, 2007

4 Min Read

Looking back on the story about the former Marine and FBI analyst who stole classified information from both the White House and the FBI's own database, I think there are some important lessons to be learned from this one.In what was nearly a four-year conspiracy, the man who pleaded guilty to pirating national secrets and attempting to foster a political coup in the Philippines wasn't the savviest spy this country has ever seen. Oh, don't get me wrong. Leandro Aragoncillo wasn't a stupid man, but he was a fairly sloppy spy. And if he can get away with stealing sensitive national defense information, think about what a savvy worker could lift from your own company.

Aragoncillo managed to steal classified documents from the Office of the Vice President of the United States, as well as from the FBI, an intelligence bastion known around the world. In both of these government positions, Aragoncillo had top secret security clearance. Yes, he was allowed to view classified documents. However, that high-level access only covered information related to cases he was actually supposed to be working on. He did not have the full run of government databases, yet he ran queries outside his authorization limits for nearly four years.

Aragoncillo was a major cog in a multinational conspiracy to oust a Philippine president and her administration. Court documents showed that he stole information about the Philippine economy, confidential U.S. intelligence sources, and even terrorist threats against U.S. military personnel stationed in the Philippines. While he was with the FBI, he accessed, downloaded, and printed classified documents that belonged to the FBI, the Department of Defense, the CIA, and the U.S. Department of State. Court papers noted that many of the stolen documents held national defense information.

This government insider didn't do much to cover his tracks, though.

Court documents showed that he actually had the nerve to transmit classified information to a co-conspirator from a fax machine inside the White House. When he sent information online, he generally did it from a home computer. And while he used an alias and some code words, he sent the e-mails using Hotmail and Yahoo accounts. Nothing was encrypted. When he queried databases for information to steal, he did it at his desk -- possibly sipping a cup of coffee or waving to a colleague passing by.

Now, I found this part pretty startling. When the FBI began to investigate Aragoncillo, they told him they were investigating him. And he continued to steal information anyway. He knew he was being watched and it didn't deter him. Conspirators told him to back off, but he didn't.

What I'm getting at here is that this guy was no James Bond-type with high-tech gadgets, elaborate disguises, and inside-government cohorts helping him sidestep an ever-watchful security presence. He sat at his desk, ran queries, downloaded information onto a disc, put it in his bag, and walked right out the door with it. No one checked to see what he was querying for. He was an FBI intelligence analyst. He was one of them. His coworkers and administrators simply saw him as the trusted insider.

The problem is that the trusted insider often is the most dangerous threat there is, whether it's to the U.S. government or to a Fortune 500 company or a medium-sized local business. And we hate to think that way. None of us want to be thought of as the mistrustful jerk. Who wants to have to keep an eye on the people we talk to while we wait for the coffee machine to brew another pot, or who play on the same company bocce team or even just pass in the hallway?

A recent study showed that nearly half of professionals from across a wide range of industries admit they have taken data with them -- everything from documents and lists to sales proposals and contracts -- when they've changed jobs. According to the international Information Security Survey, users polled said they don't see their companies' IT security practices as obstacles to accessing data from outside company walls or to walking out the door with it in their bag or thumb drive.

That needs to change.

Are you sure no one is rooting around in databases where they have no business? Are you sure no one is accessing sensitive financial or personnel information? Are you sure company data isn't walking out the building on a disc or thumb drive or MP3 player in some worker's gym bag. I bet you're not sure at all.

Trust, but verify.

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