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11/17/2016
01:00 PM
John Moynihan
John Moynihan
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Insider Threat: The Domestic Cyber Terrorist

It is dangerously naive for business and government leaders to dismiss the risk of radicalized privileged users inside our critical industries.

Global intelligence agencies agree that adversaries of the United States are planning cyber campaigns designed to inflict lasting damage upon the nation's critical infrastructure, disrupt our economy, and spread societal chaos. Although many anticipate that these campaigns will be launched from abroad, this perspective is dangerously naive.

Having spent the past 20 years detecting insider malice, I have a message for our leaders: Anticipate that these attacks may not originate from the territories of rogue nation states or the enclaves of violent extremists, but from inside of the targeted organizations.  

As evidenced by the tragedies of San Bernardino and Orlando, homegrown terrorism is now a grim reality. These attacks, as well as several others that have been disrupted in process, offer irrefutable proof that terrorist groups are now capable of what was previously unimaginable — the ability to radicalize American citizens to carry out attacks within the United States.

Once embedded within military installations, financial institutions, healthcare facilities, and the electrical grid, clandestine agents would be perfectly positioned to destroy, disable, and alter the processes deemed critical to our nation's infrastructure and internal security. What better way to achieve widespread impact than through a network of radicalized privileged users concurrently attacking the United States' energy, financial services, and healthcare industries? The aftermath of such an attack could be catastrophic.

Should industry and government leaders dismiss this threat as doomsday fiction, they do so at their peril. Rather than question the possibility of such a scenario, executives should begin mobilizing to mitigate this threat through the implementation of more robust pre-employment screening and comprehensive, real-time monitoring of government and corporate networks.

In many instances, those in the radicalization process engage multiple social media platforms in the run-up to an attack. Accordingly, employers should analyze the social media accounts of any individual under consideration for a sensitive IT role to identify potential threat indicators.

Further, human resource departments should make direct contact with an applicant's former employers and co-workers to determine whether they had ever exhibited behaviors that may represent a future risk. All employees with access to an organization's technology infrastructure should undergo a criminal history check to determine whether any form of violent propensity exists. It is critical that prior to querying former employers, management obtain written consent from each applicant.

Additionally, all organizations should perform real-time monitoring of network activity, with an increased emphasis on those with privileged user authority. Employers can and should implement monitoring programs for the purpose of timely detecting employee interest in extremist activities, the installation of unauthorized software, and anomalous network behavior. A vast array of automated tools provide management with the ability to detect predefined, anomalous events and generate real-time alerts. Again, while system monitoring is legally permissible, management should obtain written acknowledgment, from all employees, that they understand that such oversight may be performed. 

During the recent election, a campaign of sophisticated and unprecedented cyber aggression threatened to undermine the very foundation of our democracy. This experience should serve as a call to action. It is tempting to look towards our borders for terrorist threats, but we must also look inward when assessing cyber risk. Although comprehensive applicant screening and continuous system monitoring will require additional resources and financial commitment, public and private sector leaders must consider that the threat from within has now rendered the previously unthinkable to be a likely eventuality.

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John Moynihan, CGEIT, CRISC, is President of Minuteman Governance, a Massachusetts cybersecurity consultancy that provides services to public and private sector clients throughout the United States. Prior to founding this firm, he was CISO at the Massachusetts Department of ... View Full Bio
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