Twitter Hack: The Spotlight that Insider Threats Need

The high profile attack should spur serious board-level conversations around the importance of insider threat prevention.

Shareth Ben, Executive Director, Field Engineering, Securonix

August 20, 2020

4 Min Read

A few weeks ago, news broke of a massive security incident at Twitter that affected some of the world's most influential politicians, celebrities, and companies. High profile individuals — including Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Joe Biden — tweeted scam-filled messages requesting Bitcoin transfers to millions of followers.

The result? Despite pushing a fairly blatant scam, the hackers quickly received hundreds of transfers from people all over the world, totaling north of $100,000.

Twitter said in response to the incident: "We detected what we believe to be a coordinated social engineering attack by people who successfully targeted some of our employees with access to internal systems and tools."

In other words, it's apparent that this was a result of negligence on the part of an insider. While the insider(s) were tricked into divulging sensitive information, it's clear that one of the most pervasive threats to enterprise security isn't related to technology at all — it's humans that are susceptible to being compromised by attackers, whether unknowingly or for monetary gain.

The Twitter hack shook the world of cybersecurity and put the general population on notice, and rightfully so. But we shouldn't let this event pass without acknowledging the national spotlight that it casts on the dangers that insider threats pose to organizations of all sizes.

This should serve as a wake-up call and learning opportunity for business leaders and security professionals to better understand what insider threats entail, including common avenues and attack indicators, and what can be done to spot this type of behavior.

What Are Insider Threats?
Insider threats have been on the radar of security teams for a long time but the danger has been amplified by increased connectivity and the resulting new avenues for malicious activity. To put it simply, an insider threat is the risk posed by employees or contractors regarding the theft of sensitive data, misuse of their access privileges, or fraudulent activity that puts the organization at risk.

The most common insider threats involve the exfiltration of sensitive data, where data is transferred outside of a network and obtained by either a malicious actor or intentionally stolen by an employee. Flight-risk individuals, meaning those on the verge of leaving their current job, are the most common culprits of this type of activity. Other typical avenues include privilege misuse, infrastructure sabotage, and data exfiltration.

To understand the scope of the problem, look no further than the headlines that resulted from the Twitter hack or the Tesla data theft case from 2018. Both cases earned headlines at almost every national news outlet, and security was seriously compromised due to the common vulnerability of every organization: humans with access to sensitive information that had the means to knowingly or unknowingly use it for malicious purposes.

Malicious Insider Activity Made Easy via Cloud Storage
It's no secret that as technology evolves, the enterprise attack surface does as well. This is also the case when it comes to insider threats. One of the biggest changes over the last few years is the increased use of enterprise cloud tools, which make it easier for employees to share company information with personal accounts.

Cloud collaboration tools are a major problem for organizations from a data-leak perspective. IT and security teams don't have visibility into how users share data, and being able to spot anomalies is especially difficult in these situations.

While companies adopt the cloud for its countless benefits and scalability, it cannot be overstated that security should never be an afterthought. Organizations should put in place some form of oversight, such as establishing privileged access or roles, or general analysis of employee activities when they allow employees to use these types of tools. 

Detecting Insider Threats
Detecting and eliminating an insider threat boils down to behavior analysis and simply knowing what to look for across the organization that could indicate malicious insider activity. Some examples include indicators of audit log tampering, suspicious commands being executed, account sharing, authentication anomalies, self-escalation of privileges, and the circumvention of IT controls. 

A malicious insider will usually exhibit behavior and take the actions of a person who is working to get their hands on more sensitive information than they typically have access to in a regular working day. Each indicator doesn't necessarily mean there is a threat on its own, but if they are spotted, it's important that an investigation takes place to rule it out as a possibility.

The Path Forward
It may sound simple, but the key to spotting and eliminating insider threats is to identify suspicious activity, meaning IT and security teams need end-to-end visibility into user activities and the tools needed to carry out real-time behavior analysis. This requires businesses making the right money and time investments to improve the people, processes, and technologies powering their security programs.

The recent event with Twitter may have seemed like nothing more than a scam to the average Joe, but I'm hopeful that its high profile will give security professionals the ammo they need to start serious board-level conversations around the dangers of insider threats and the importance of making the investments necessary to prevent them from continuing to make headlines.

About the Author(s)

Shareth Ben

Executive Director, Field Engineering, Securonix

Shareth is an information security professional with over a decade of field engineering and program management experience, serving the security needs of Fortune 500 clients. He is currently focused on providing insider threat and cyber threat Solutions by bringing synergies between people, processes, and technology to mitigate risks to enterprises. He is passionate about improving the security posture of organizations by providing his expertise and best practices based on his extensive experience in the field. Shareth often provides his thought leadership through whitepapers, news articles, webinars, and reports to provide insights and create awareness in the industry on the topic of Insider Threat.

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