Insider Attacks Put IT Security on the Offensive

'Counterintelligence' efforts could help companies prevent internal breaches, rather than just detect them

Tim Wilson, Editor in Chief, Dark Reading, Contributor

October 3, 2007

5 Min Read

Dave Drab has spent 32 years in law enforcement, 27 of them with the FBI, and he knows something about insider threats. "The problem with most enterprises is that by the time they find out the threat is there, it's too late," he says. "What they really need -- and a lot of companies are learning this -- is some level of counterintelligence."

"Counterintelligence" may sound a bit cloak-and-dagger -- and pricey -- for the average IT security shop, which is lucky to have the budget of a one-man sheriff's office. But as public reports of insider attacks hit the headlines with alarming frequency, many organizations are going on the offensive to find potential internal threats -- and stop them before they do damage to the business.

"Companies are beginning to see that most of the tools they are using -- firewalls, intrusion prevention, log analysis, even a lot of the data leak prevention tools -- are really only useful after you've been compromised," says Kevin Harvey, senior sales engineer at Fidelis, who has participated in hundreds of insider threat assessments for large enterprises. "What they're looking to do now is develop ways to proactively seek out the threats and prevent them, rather than just find out who did it."

"I'm mostly concerned about the insider who wants to circumvent our controls and put the company at risk by sharing or exporting controlled information," says Andy Stokes, IT security manager at EFW Inc., a supplier of electronics for the defense industry. "We monitor our networks for odd behavior, such as attempted outbound connections at odd hours and over strange ports."

The key, experts say, is to have someone who's actively pinging internal systems for vulnerabilities and monitoring the environment for extraordinary activity, just as IT people would normally do penetration testing and event monitoring to help identify potential external threats.

"Counterintelligence can be just one person who keeps an eye on the most sensitive elements in the environment," says Drab, who now serves as principal for information and content security services at Xerox Global Services. "It doesn't have to be expensive or resource-intensive, but somebody needs to be doing it."

Recently, some vendors have been touting the new category of data leak prevention tools as a means for detecting insider activity. But most experts -- even the DLP vendors themselves -- will concede that there's no single toolset that can prevent data leaks from occurring. (See DLP in Flux.)

"You can have the latest and greatest encryption tools and access control systems, but most of them won't stop a guy from simply printing out a document and walking out the door with it," says Drab. "So much of what is being sold is out of context with the real threats that companies are dealing with."

Even Fidelis -- which is on the leading edge of DLP with an appliance that can track and prevent all forms of outbound communication -- concedes that its product won't completely shut off the insider faucet. "Neither we nor any vendor in this space has solved all of the problems with insider activity," says David Etue, vice president of product management at Fidelis. "We can help, but we're just one piece of the puzzle."

Another key piece of the "counterintelligence" puzzle is monitoring employee activity. "In our environment, any employee can use an online form to report suspicious activity," says an IT security officer at a large banking company, who asked not to be identified. "That alerts corporate security, which then investigates.

"For something that won't be detected by an IDS/IPS, anti-malware, or antivirus tool, the 'suspicious activity' process is all we have," he says. "Access controls keep unauthorized people out, but an authorized user can only be detected in retrospect, by examining the log repository."

Many experts also recommend using employee monitoring tools, which can help identify unusual behavior and activity at odd hours. Companies such as Ascentive and SurfControl have seen an uptick in their business as enterprises become more aware of the need for behavior analysis and anomaly detection. (See Careful, The Boss Is Watching.)

"The way DuPont found Gary Min was when they analyzed his activity -- after he told them he was resigning," Drab observes. "They might have spotted him sooner if they had been monitoring for it." Min, a former DuPont employee, is awaiting sentencing after stealing approximately $400 million worth of trade secrets from the company. (See Insider Tries to Steal $400 Million at DuPont.)

Drab also advocates the implementation of document control and management systems for the enterprise's most sensitive documents. "You can't solve the problem until you've identified which material is sensitive, and you're protecting it, not only from online theft, but from people walking out with paper or thumb drives," he says. "Paper is still the easiest way to steal information."

And until enterprises can build a counterintelligence program that monitors people and paper as well as networks and applications, the problem will continue to grow, experts say. A study by the Computer Security Institute last month identified insider attacks as the biggest threat in the enterprise, surpassing worms and viruses for the first time in the study's 11-year history. (See Reports: Threats More Sophisticated, More Costly Than Ever.)

"The insider threat is going to continue," says EFW's Stokes. "Why? Because, as my friend the facility security officer says, 'People just ain't no damn good.' "

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About the Author(s)

Tim Wilson, Editor in Chief, Dark Reading


Tim Wilson is Editor in Chief and co-founder of Dark, UBM Tech's online community for information security professionals. He is responsible for managing the site, assigning and editing content, and writing breaking news stories. Wilson has been recognized as one of the top cyber security journalists in the US in voting among his peers, conducted by the SANS Institute. In 2011 he was named one of the 50 Most Powerful Voices in Security by SYS-CON Media.

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