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Ex-IT Chief Busted for Hacking

Could former security-privileged employees be targeting your environment as well?

Stevan Hoffacker, formerly director of IT and VP of technology for Source Media, was arrested at his home yesterday on charges of breaking into the email system that he once managed.

According to the FBI and the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Hoffacker hacked into his former company's messaging server, eavesdropped on top executives' emails about employees' job status, and then warned the employees that they were about to lose their positions.

Hoffacker, 53, is charged with one count of unauthorized access to a protected computer network. If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

According to the law enforcement agencies, Hoffacker was with Source Media -- a 1,000-employee firm that publishes financial market information -- from 1998 to 2003. But between August and September 2006, Hoffacker allegedly monitored confidential messages about impending personnel moves, then used an anonymous Yahoo mail account to warn two of the affected employees.

Hoffacker was linked to the incidents via the Yahoo account, which he owned, and by computer forensics which indicate that Hoffacker had hacked into his old mail system before the incidents occurred. The FBI did not say exactly how Hoffacker broke into the mail system, but it noted that the former IT exec had access to the passwords for the email accounts of other Source Media employees.

The arrest could serve as a warning to other companies where high-ranking IT executives have access to a broad range of security privileges. In his recently published book, Enemy at the Water Cooler, ArcSight Inc. CSO Brian Contos described a situation in which an IT employee hacked into other employees' email accounts in order to find out whether his girlfriend was having an affair with a co-worker.

"Insiders have two things that external attackers don't: trust and access," Contos observes. Although Hoffacker's accounts likely were disabled when he was terminated from Source Media, he had access to sensitive data files, he says.

"He could have used a number of mechanisms to steal passwords while employed," Contos notes. "Something as simple as installing a basic keylogger or running password cracking tools against a password file could have resulted in everything he needed to know in a very short time, and would have likely slid under the radar of most security controls."

A recent study by the Ponemon Institute found that 78 percent of the organizations surveyed had experienced at least one insider security breach that was not publicly disclosed.

The bottom line is that organizations should be watchful of suspicious activity by privileged users -- even those who are no longer with the company, experts say.

"An effective monitoring strategy that leverages preventative controls and is backed by executive support is necessary for any effective insider threat mitigation program," says Contos.

— Tim Wilson, Site Editor, Dark Reading

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