Study: Rethink the Outsider Threat

DOJ data turns conventional wisdom on its head: Biggest enterprise threat is more than likely external

If an attacker gains access to authorized user privileges to break into your network, it'll cost you more than a malware attack.

That's what a new report released today by Trusted Strategies concludes: The average cost per event to an organization hit with stolen account privileges was $1.5 million, versus $2,400 for a virus attack, according to the report, which analyzes real data from publicly disclosed cybercrime cases.

The report took data from the Department of Justice Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section's network intrusion and data-theft prosecutions between 1999 and 2006. (See How Much Does a Hack Cost?) Phoenix Technologies commissioned the report, but the data came from DOJ cases. Among its key findings:

  • Average financial loss per case was more than $3 million.

    • 78 percent of attackers in these cases did their dirty deeds from a home PC with stolen credentials, rather than any sophisticated hacking techniques.

    • 84 percent of computer crimes could have been prevented if the computer that was broken into had been verified as an authorized device.

    • Most attackers have no relationship to the victim, which goes against conventional wisdom that the insider threat is the real security risk.

      "Many of the crimes were perpetrated by insiders using these outside computers," says Bill Bosen, an analyst with Trusted Strategies who wrote the report. "This study showed 57 percent of crimes came from outsiders. That's still a very hefty number of insiders involved."

      "It's pretty clear that there is a weak standard for authentication in enterprises today," says Pete Lindstrom, research director for Spire Security, who notes that the Trusted Strategies report mostly focuses on extreme cases of damage to organizations. "Computer-identity verification is useful in some circumstances, but any prescriptive measure must be evaluated based on the threat model. There are many other forms of authentication that could be just as useful."

      User privileges, meanwhile, are a powerful tool for attackers. In one case mentioned in the report, a convicted attacker had used stolen IDs and passwords to gain access to administrative accounts at an unnamed company. From there, he deleted all of its manufacturing software programs, ringing up $10 million in damages.

      "The focus in government and industry has been on the network and combating viruses and worms. They've spent a lot of money on that and have a robust infrastructure now," says Robert Rodriguez, former assistant special agent for the U.S. Secret Service in charge of the San Francisco district, where he headed up an electronic trends task force for the agency. "But applications and other vulnerability areas have bad guys," says Rodriquez, who is now principal, Rodriquez and Associates.

      According to Lindstrom, one reason the user privilege method is more costly than malware breaches is that security tools have made some headway protecting networks against malware.

      And most organizations that were attacked had checked user ID and password credentials, according to the report, but not whether the computer that got in was legit. Among those attacks, 78 percent were committed from the attacker's home and 5 percent on-site. Some 17 percent of the cases didn't specify where the attack originated.

      But in about 16 percent of these cases, checking the authenticity of the machine wouldn't have halted the breach because these attacks were either from insiders, or they were denial-of-service and other malware attacks that don't use logons.

      Outside attackers committed 79 percent of the crimes where user accounts were infiltrated and former employees were the perpetrators in 21 percent of these types of breaches. And overall, 57 percent of attackers had no relationship with the victim organizations, 22 percent were former employees, 14 were current employees, and 7 percent had a customer or supplier relationship or similar "connection" to the victimized organization.

      Government (23 percent), retail (22 percent), high tech (20 percent), and financial (16 percent) were the top victims of attacks, according to the report.

      — Kelly Jackson Higgins, Senior Editor, Dark Reading

About the Author(s)

Kelly Jackson Higgins, Editor-in-Chief, Dark Reading

Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Editor-in-Chief 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 Magazine, Virginia Business magazine, and other major media properties. Jackson Higgins was recently selected as one of the Top 10 Cybersecurity Journalists in the US, and named as one of Folio's 2019 Top Women in Media. She began her career as a sports writer in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, and earned her BA at William & Mary. Follow her on Twitter @kjhiggins.

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