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Commentary

A Real Insider Threat Story

I was sitting at my desk when my phone rang. I answered, and it was a large pharmaceutical company that was interested in consulting services. It had noticed a trend with one of its foreign competitors. Every time it went to release a new product (in this particular case a new drug), one of its competitors would release a similar drug with a similar name, several weeks before it, beating it to market.
I was sitting at my desk when my phone rang. I answered, and it was a large pharmaceutical company that was interested in consulting services. It had noticed a trend with one of its foreign competitors. Every time it went to release a new product (in this particular case a new drug), one of its competitors would release a similar drug with a similar name, several weeks before it, beating it to market.If you understand the drug industry, this is a serious problem from a revenue-generation standpoint. The first company to get a product to market usually is able to obtain a higher market share and higher demand than its competitors. Therefore, this situation represented a huge monetary loss to the company, and the executives were concerned.

I needed more details. My follow-up questions were, "How often has this occurred, and over what time period?" The executive I was talking with said it has happened eight times during the past 12 months. I was thinking to myself, "You think there is a problem?" My next question was, "Why did you wait so long to call someone?" The answer was the company figured it was just a coincidence because the only way this could have happened was if an insider were giving the information to a competitor, and it trusted all of the employees, so this could not be the case. During the next several months, it were going to realize how wrong that previous statement was.

I lead an internal assessment team, and during the course of several months found three different groups of people (each consisting of two to four people) working for two different competitors. Actually, one was working for a foreign competitor and the other two were working for a foreign government.

The fact this story is true is scary. What makes it really scary is this happened more than 18 months ago, and I have worked on and aware of at least 15 other similar cases. The average monetary loss of the case I worked on was estimated at $350 million yearly. Insider threat is happening, and the sooner organizations identify the problem the easier it is to fix.

"I trust everyone -- it is the devil inside that I do not trust," is a great line from the movie The Italian Job. Everyone has the potential do to harm, including your employees. If you look at the minimal background checks that most companies perform on their employees, then why should you trust them? Why is it that once a total stranger is hired at your company, you now have complete trust in that person? Just because a person is now called an employee does not mean he now has loyalty to your organization and would do nothing to hurt it. We do not want to be so paranoid that your company cannot function, but a healthy dose of paranoia is good.

Paranoia is your friend.

Dr. Eric Cole, Ph.D., is a security expert with more than 15 years of hands-on experience. Cole has experience in information technology with a focus on perimeter defense, secure network design, vulnerability discovery, penetration testing, and intrusion detection systems. He is the author of several books, including Hackers Beware, Hiding in Plain Site, Network Security Bible, and Insider Threat. He is the inventor of more than 20 patents, and is a researcher, writer, and speaker. Cole is a member of the Commission on Cyber Security for the 44th President and several executive advisory boards, and is CTO of the Americas for McAfee. Cole is involved with the SANS Technology Institute (STI) and SANS working with students, teaching, and maintaining and developing courseware. He is a SANS fellow, instructor, and course author.

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