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Trust But Verify

Eliminating insider threats as an essential security and compliance best-practices measure

Some years ago, a small manufacturing firm was hijacked by its IT employees. They didn't use weapons, but they did commit murder: They killed the business. Unfortunately, they were aided and abetted by the company's own lax security policies.

The firm had ignored the best practice of segregating duties: The IT employees who developed the core manufacturing software were also tasked with administering the system, supporting the end users and managing the backup process. When business conditions required the company to reorganize its IT staff, some of the employees who were to be laid off took revenge by sabotaging the mission-critical application. They erased audit trails, reassigned user rights, and even destroyed the backup tapes. The manufacturer never recovered.

While this may be an extreme example of the havoc supposedly "trusted" insiders can wreak, it's not an isolated instance. Most privileged users have earned their organizations' trust, but a single rogue employee can do great damage, disrupting or destroying systems, or stealing corporate data. Even if these acts don't leave a company in ruins, they can expose a business to heavy financial losses, fines for compliance violations, and negative publicity.

Many organizations have yet to pay close attention to combating this threat. Companies in recent years have focused on the external threats from hackers to phishers that the media has underscored. Yet privileged users in organizations can represent a more significant risk. Their credentials often supply them with the "keys to the kingdom" that enable them to access and view data that they shouldn't, and access and manage IT systems in a way that can damage operations. Sometimes, the damage is an accident, but it's equally likely to be malicious.

Some startling facts about the risks posed by insiders are revealed in "The Insider Threat Study: Computer System Sabotage in Critical Infrastructure Sectors." The May 2005 report, published by the U.S. Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center and the Carnegie Mellon Software Engineering Institute's CERT program, focused on nearly 50 cases of insider sabotage carried out between 1996 and 2002. It found that 86% of the insiders who engaged in sabotage were employed in technical positions, most as system administrators. Most had privileged access to systems when hired, though less than half had authorized access at the time of the incident. Fifty-seven percent of the insiders exploited systemic vulnerabilities in applications, processes, or procedures, or some combination of them. Eighty-one percent of the organizations affected suffered financial losses - in at least one case tens of millions of dollars. The business operations of three-quarters of the affected organizations suffered a negative impact, ranging from deleted sales records to destruction of proprietary software, and the reputations of nearly 30% were damaged.

Beyond all this, organizations expose themselves to penalties if they fail to ensure the integrity of their financial systems and statements and protect customer data as required by regulatory mandate, including Sarbox, HIPAA, and state privacy laws. The 2006 CSI-FBI security study reveals that respondents consider data protection, regulatory compliance, and identity theft as their most critical computer security issues over the next two years. But failure to follow best security practices, including limiting system access by privileged users, compromises corporate compliance efforts. Failing to do so may even personally affect the organizations' key executives, who must vouch for management's having adequate internal controls over financial reporting.

There is certainly reason to worry about compliance measures being compromised on Unix and Linux systems, where the root user account gives system administrators access to all the power of the root. As more and more organizations elect to run mission-critical financial, CRM, and other applications on heterogeneous servers, controlling privileged accounts is more crucial than ever.

Without proper controls, anyone with access to the root account - the virtual "keys the kingdom" - is given complete super-user privileges without justification based on their job classification, duties, or role in the IT department. This violates security best practices by exposing proprietary systems and information to malicious activity and sabotage that could result in catastrophic information leakage or mistakes that could bring down a network.

Action Must Follow Awareness
The good news is that there's a growing awareness of the threat posed by privileged users, particularly at financial institutions, which have seen some of the more high-profile breaches.

Indeed, nearly 70% of respondents to the CSI-FBI security study attribute some percentage of corporate losses to insider threats. Seven percent believe that insiders account for more than 80% of their organization's losses.

Further proof of awareness comes from the 2006 E-Crime Watch survey, conducted by CSO Magazine, the U.S. Secret Service, the CERT Coordination Center, and Microsoft. Respondents to that survey who experienced e-crime said that, to the best of their knowledge, 63% of intellectual property thefts involved insiders, as did 56% of other proprietary information thefts, 49% of sabotage cases, and 71% of incidents having to do with the intentional exposure of private or sensitive information. Fifty-five percent of the organizations that have experienced security events now report at least one insider event, up from 39% in 2005.

Indeed, vendors that provide identity and access management products for Unix and Linux security and administration, including Symark Software, have seen sales rise in direct response to company needs to comply with privacy laws and federal regulations.

Now for the proverbial bad news: even as companies are becoming more aware of the problem, many still aren't taking some of the most basic steps to lock down their environments. On Linux and Unix systems, big strides can be made simply by putting technology in place that delegates the root's abilities to system administrators without providing the root password and providing indelible audit trails of user actions.

So what exactly holds companies back from such a step? Misreading the potential cost of the risks they're running, for one thing. For instance, some healthcare organizations may consider that the $250,000 fine for a HIPAA privacy violation doesn't justify the price of purchasing and deploying another security solution. They miss the bigger picture costs here, by not considering all the other expenses they will incur should they suffer a client data breach. That includes notifying their customers that their data files have been breached, a cost of about $15 a pop. Those fees can add up quickly.

The "it can't happen here" factor also plays a role. There's a real human desire to want to trust the people we work with. Unfortunately, that noble instinct runs up against the darker side of human nature - people being tempted to take revenge for perceived slights, bad performance reviews, or layoffs; to steal and sell company data to pay off gambling debts; to misappropriate company funds to cover personal expenses.

Finally, organizations may face some internal pushback on security efforts since they disrupt the IT status quo. Many IT professionals see themselves as the organization's heroes in white hats, coming to the rescue when viruses are on the loose or systems go down. They may view plans to limit their root user accounts as an affront to their personal ethics, as well as an obstacle to being able to do their jobs effectively. They may also believe that audit trails are meant to spy on whether their time is well spent. The situation may be complicated by politics - the demand for implementing security and administration tools may be driven by security officers or internal auditing teams rather than IT operations leaders.

The situation can be prickly, given the tensions that sometimes exist among these groups, and the trend towards downsizing IT staff. You can hardly blame system administrators for fearing that their authority is being curtailed, or that their productivity is being monitored. Yet, at the same time, IT employees understand better than most the temptations to explore unauthorized data. According to a recent survey by the analysts at Dark Reading, approximately 10% of IT/security pros say they abuse security privileges to access unauthorized data on a regular basis. Nearly 30% are not regular offenders, but they admit to having accessed unauthorized data during their careers.


More Stories By Ellen Libenson

Ellen Libenson, vice president of product management at Symark Software (www.symark.com), a provider of security administration solutions for heterogeneous IT environments.

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