Enterprises, vendors move to safeguard their systems from rogue systems administrators

Tim Wilson, Editor in Chief, Dark Reading, Contributor

October 16, 2007

5 Min Read

Way back in 2002, Roger Duronio didn't get as big an annual bonus as he expected, so he quit his job as a systems administrator at UBS PaineWebber and he went home. Then, Roger got an idea.

Using access codes he retained from his job, an angry Duronio planted a logic bomb in UBS PaineWebber's systems. The bomb hit at 9:30 in the morning, just as the stock market opened for the day. Files were deleted from up to 2,000 servers in both the central data center in Weehawken, N.J., and in branch offices around the country. It cost the company more than $3.1 million to get the system back up and running. (See Security's Biggest Train Wrecks.)

On January 30 of this year, Joseph Patrick Nolan, an IT admin at aviation contractor Pentastar, was told that he would not receive a paycheck for his last two weeks at the company, where he had recently resigned. On February 1, the disgruntled Nolan gained unauthorized access to Pentastar's computer systems and effectively obliterated a drive that contained all of the company's payroll and personnel records, according to court documents. (See Former IT Admin Convicted of Sabotage .)

In between these two major events, there have been numerous studies that illustrate, in some detail, that even non-disgruntled IT administrators frequently abuse their access privileges to access unauthorized files, emails, and even personnel records. In a survey conducted by Dark Reading one year ago, more than a third of administrators admitted to using those privileges to read unauthorized data. (See Security's Rotten Apples.)

Bottom line: If you thought you could trust your IT security team with broad systems access and shared administrative passwords, think again.

"The fact is that most of the security breaches enterprises see come from insiders, and most of those insider breaches come from people who have privileged access to data," says Mark Diodati, senior analyst for identity and privacy strategies at the Burton Group. The U.S. Secret Service last year estimated that approximately 80 percent of all insider incidents were caused by users with privileged access.

Until recently, however, most companies didn't have a process for controlling access to data by IT administrators. "It was usually an Excel spreadsheet or a laminated card that contained all the admin passwords, and the only controls were that you were told not to pass them around," Diodati notes.

Over the last two years, however, with the advent of more scrupulous auditing standards imposed by standards such as SOX, HIPAA, and PCI -- as well as very public breaches such as the one at UBS PaineWebber -- companies have found a very real need to add some controls that limit IT administrators' access to data and prevent the sort of casual abuse of privileges that has been available to IT staffers for decades.

"We've already got 230 customers using our product -- that's more than some of the end-user-oriented identity management tool vendors have," says Adam Bosnian, vice president of product strategy and sales at Cyber-Ark, a company that makes software for monitoring, managing, and distributing privileged administrative passwords. "That tells you that this particular problem is one that is important to compliance, but isn't being addressed by a lot of the [identity management] tools that are out there."

Cyber-Ark is one of a half dozen small vendors that have been grouped together in an emerging security product category -- "privileged access management" -- by Burton Group, Gartner, and others. Although these tools work differently, the general idea is to place all of the administrative passwords in a sort of escrow -- Cyber-Ark calls it a "vault" -- and mete them out only to administrators who have a real need to access the systems in question.

"What we find, post-sale, is that when the administrative passwords are all changed and locked in the vault, people start coming out of the woodwork to ask what happened," Bosnian says. "Where you thought you only had 10 people with administrative access to a particular system, you might find that you actually have 30."

Privileged access management systems also enable enterprises to monitor the use of administrative passwords, creating an audit trail that allows forensics investigators to identify the specific user who abused a shared administrative password.

"The old joke was to ask who accessed the HR database," Diodati says. "The answer: 'root.' It used to be that if the access was made by a root password, you couldn't track it to any one individual." Some enterprises have more than 200 people sharing a single administrative password, Bosnian says.

But while products such as Cyber-Ark's might control access to administrative passwords, they typically don't restrict access to specific functions or datasets once the administrator is inside a system, Diodati observes. Windows and other systems still need a control mechanism analogous to SUDU, a Unix feature that allows organizations to grant administrative access only to specific functions or data.

"We're working on features that will monitor keystrokes and activity, and also more granular authorization to specific parts of a system," Bosnian says. The new capabilities will likely be available in 2008, he says.

But Diodati notes that there is a whole range of administrative passwords built into many scripts and applications that still need to be addressed by access control technologies and practices. "At some point, there's going to be a need to rip embedded passwords out of programs and restrict them," he says. "That will probably come later, after the basic administrative checkout issues are addressed."

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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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