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AMD Suit Offers Lessons On Punishing Insider Thieves

Theft of 150,000 documents by AMD employees defecting to nVidia and subsequent lawsuit shows value of monitoring and forensics spend
A long-waged a turf war in the CPU and GPU arena was tinged with allegations of dirty fighting this month when chipmaker AMD brought suit against former employees it accused of stealing sensitive information during their defection to competitor nVidia. Security industry veterans call it a classic case of insider theft. They say it provides a good opportunity for CISOs to educate line-of-business leaders about the importance of security controls designed not just for prevention but also for forensics that enable organizations to sic the legal dogs on thieves who still find a way to steal.

"It's a classic case that we've seen play itself out a lot over the last ten years," says Eddie Schwartz, CISO at RSA. "We are seeing more and more intensity from both security teams and legal teams who are trying to get visibility into insider threat issues and then taking that visibility to specific actions."

[How can cloud activity increase insider risks? See Cloud's Privileged Identity Gap Intensifies Insider Threats.]

Insider risks may not necessarily be as pervasive as outside risks pummeling IT each day or even as prevalent as some security marketers make the insider threat scenario out to be, but when not properly addressed it can be devastating, Schwartz says.

"It's certainly easy enough for people on the inside to intentionally or unintentionally collaborate with people on the outside to transfer intellectual property or to intentionally take inventions and secrets with them on their way out the door," he says.

In AMD's case, the company alleges that after a key manager moved over to nVidia, he broke non-solicitation agreements to recruit three other employees. Between the four of them, AMD lawyers claimed they stole more than 150,000 files. Among the files that AMD claims to have forensic evidence to show the former employees stole, data included licensing agreements, strategic business plans and a 200-file database containing product and chip manufacturing details. According to Schwartz, the forensic work that AMD's security team did to help its legal team offers a valuable point of reference for CISO's around the industry wishing to justify security spend.

"I think what security people should take away from this is, here's an example where clearly the use of security technology and a security team's close work with other functions of the business demonstrates the value to the organization of what they provide," he says. "Through a combination of good information about their network and by good collaboration with legal, HR and so-on, they were able to make some agile decisions to take action to potentially protect their intellectual property."

He believes that security organizations need to do a better job balancing security spend between preventative technology and other technology like monitoring and analytics that can help with forensics when threats sneak through prophylactic measures. This may be a sea change for some organizations that in the past have heavily favored preventative measures in the hopes of a cure-all fix.

"I think a lot of organizations have now said, 'We can't do that anymore.' We have to try to move more toward a detective and forensics-based approach approach where we use concepts like big-data analytics to try to predict the unknown," he says. "Inevitably, when things do happen, they can also help with the aftermath of some incident."

Of course, there's often overlap between the two domains, particularly when it comes to identity and access management tools. Access management plays a pivotal role in prevention, but even when operational constraints don't block a thief from resources it lies at the foundation of monitoring technology that leaves the evidentiary data necessary to take legal action like the case AMD is pursuing.

"Access management is key because there's an entire set of processes around access to certain applications and data," says Chris Radkowski, director of solution management for GRC at SAP. "So we definitely feel that having process in place where there's approvals that can track who got access to something, how they were approved, how long was it valid for and that kind of thing is critical. Especially when you're confronted with having to deal with (the crises of), 'Oh my gosh, someone has stolen 100,000 documents. How and when did they do it?'"

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