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Commentary

It's Time To Integrate Physical And Virtual Security

With examples of employee theft and the increasing threat of damage to systems by disgruntled ex-employees, it's time to consider presence-linked polices and implementing the Trusted Computing Group's new Trusted Network Connect (TNC) standard. We have the technology to better support our financial and intellectual property -- and in these hard times, we need to step up and do just that.
With examples of employee theft and the increasing threat of damage to systems by disgruntled ex-employees, it's time to consider presence-linked polices and implementing the Trusted Computing Group's new Trusted Network Connect (TNC) standard. We have the technology to better support our financial and intellectual property -- and in these hard times, we need to step up and do just that.Back when I was an auditor, I ran an audit on security for our then- division head who had come from IBM and had been outspoken about how our security sucked, and that IBM would never allow such slipshod methods or practices. In the first five minutes, I found his admin's desk unlocked, and in it was a set of keys.

These keys led to his office, his cabinet, his secure safe, and in short order, I had copied a broad cross-section of documents I wasn't even authorized to see -- including passwords and ID to systems that had CEO authority (which got me to personal data on the CIO and I imagine I could have used this information to phish out more).

Needless to say, this was the last time he publicly said our security sucked. With a badge getting me into the building and 15 minutes, I had most of what we considered to be the intellectual crown jewels of the company.

Most sites are secured by passwords that are often kept in locations that should be physically secured but are often not. And even when physical security is in place, it often isn't integrated with system security, and a breach into one can often compromise the other. People that shouldn't have night access to buildings typically do, and a person gaining access to a building at night can often find a password or ID unsecured that will get them into a system. Even if they don't steal a badge, it isn't that difficult to get in as someone who is known to be traveling -- the systems don't know any differently.

It's time to fix that.

One of the most memorable breaches was at Intel, arguably one of the most physically secure companies in tech and one under a heavy litigation umbrella at the moment. In this instance, they had an employee who was leaving to work for competitor AMD. The employee had resigned and been barred from the company site, but since he had unused vacation days, he remained in the HR system while those days were burned. During that time, he pilfered an estimated $1B worth of intellectual property from Intel's systems.

Fortunately for AMD, he did this without their knowledge as well, but this Intel security problem had implications for AMD because the information could have compromised AMD's own intellectual property for decades.

He had been barred physically, but the physical systems did not talk to the virtual, and the end result was a $1B hit. Let's be clear: most companies would likely deal with a breach like this quietly, it was probably only because there was ongoing litigation between AMD and Intel or because the amount of the breach was material to Intel that this was disclosed. One of our local utilities, California Water Service Co., had a similar experience -- not with intellectual property, but money. An employee who had resigned was still able to gain access to the firm physically and then allegedly bypassed security to wire $9M to an account he controlled in Qatar.

While the actual method he used was not reported, it is most likely he had gained access to the identity of someone who had the authority to do this, because apparently he never had this authority. He would have been caught immediately if that person had been on the system, and this was done at a time when they weren't physically in the building. With a transaction like this, compliance with separation of duties financial-control rules would have required one person to initiate the transfer, and another non-aligned person to confirm it. Either this policy was not enforced (very unlikely in any company of this size), or he actually had access to two identities to make this happen. In both Intel's and California Water Service Co.'s cases, a presence-linked policy would have solved the problem if the physical and electronic security systems had been interlinked. In the first instance, the employee had been removed from the physical system and would have automatically been barred from accessing the intellectual property he later stole.

In the second instance, the employees whose identities were stolen would have not been in the building and their log-ins invalidated until they badged into the site. At Interop last year, Hirsch Electronics showcased this capability in trial using the Trusted Computing Group's Trusted Network Connect Specification (PDF).

This turned out to be one of the big hits of the show, and I understand there are a number of US government and large enterprise sites now moving into trial with them and this technology.

It's actually uncommon for incidents like these to be reported at all. And with the number of people under financial stress increasing, there's increasing incentive for embezzlement and disgruntled employee hostile actions, I think it is time we all considered a presence-linked policy and at the very least, should be up to speed on TNC and those who are expert at implementing it.

-- Rob Enderle is president and founder of Enderle Group. Special to Dark Reading.

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