The threat of accidental or malicious employees compromising information security has been around ever since there were computer systems. But you would have thought by now that CISOs would have got a handle on it.
Not so, according to a new report from training and research firm the SANS Institute which I’ve just covered for Infosecurity Magazine.
It found that although three-quarters of IT security pros are concerned about the insider threat, a third have no means of defending against it and around a half either don’t know how much they’re spending on it or have no idea what the potential losses would be.
From JPMorgan to Chesapeake, the dangers of failing to properly mitigate internal risks are clear to see, but firms seem to be slow on the uptake.
According to Roy Duckles, EMEA Channel Director at Lieberman Software, it’s a lack of “visibility, accountability and auditability” which is to blame.
“There is an assumption that if a person or group have the ‘keys to the kingdom’ with full admin rights across an enterprise, that this is a viable and effective way to apply security policies,” he told me.
“Where most businesses fail is that due to the fact that this approach not only reduces security, but it makes it almost impossible to see who is changing what, on which systems, at what time, and the effect and risk that it has on a business.”
Firms therefore need to remove privileges where possible, introduce 2FA and prevent admins “knowing” which passwords get them into systems, he advised.
Sagie Dulce, security researcher at Imperva, told me by email that organisations lack “budget, training, technology and an incident response plan” for when a breach occurs.
“Obviously, the first things organizations must do is put some resources into the insider threat. The second thing organizations must do is prioritise: ask themselves what are the most important thing they are trying to protect?
Once they know what they are trying to protect they should consider:
- Is it Personal Information, emails, code etc?
- Is the data structured, unstructured?
- Is it found on databases, file shares?
- Who has access to this data and how (from special terminals, via VPN, 3rd party partners etc.)?”
Finally I asked David Chismon, security consultant at MWR InfoSecurity, who repeated the notion that employees should be given the minimum access necessary to do their jobs.
Investing in systems to spot insider abuse could also help protect organisations against targeted attacks which spearphish users and abuse their access, he argued.
“For example, organisations are able to detect when an employee’s account is used to try and access data it shouldn’t or if a large amount of data is being exfiltrated,” Chismon explained. “It doesn’t matter at that stage if it is the employee misusing their account or an external attacker who has compromised the network.”
The case, of course, is the destructive hit on Sony Pictures Entertainment which not only forced the movie giant to close its entire network for over a week, but also led to embarrassing internal documents and communications leaking online.
Oh, and the movie which is said to have started it all – The Interview – was virtually withdrawn from North American cinemas after distributors feared for the safety of movie-goers.
On one side it’s the Feds, who believe North Korea was responsible for the attack. On the other, industry players who believe a disgruntled insider – possibly with help from others – was to blame.
FBI director James Comey this week claimed that the hackers in question got “sloppy” a few times and forgot to use proxy servers to hide their true location, revealing IP addresses used “exclusively” by North Korea.
“They shut it off very quickly once they saw the mistake,” he added, according to Wired. “But not before we saw where it was coming from.”
The agency’s “behavioural analysis unit” has also been studying the Guardians of Peace – the group claiming responsibility – and deduced that it displays many of the psychological characteristics of North Korean operatives, he added.
The Feds have already claimed that some of the code in the malware used in this attack had been previously developed by Pyongyang, and that some of the tools used were also deployed in the DarkSeoul attacks of 2013.
So far so clear? Well, not quite according to security consultant and Europol special advisor, Brian Honan.
“What was interesting is director Comey also stated they have not yet identified the original attack vector. So this makes it even more difficult to attribute who is behind the attack and makes it more important that the FBI and Sony provide assurances regarding their attribution, particularly given that this attack is resulting in diplomatic action impacting international relations,” he told me.
“It would also be useful for many other companies to have sight of the IP addresses that were used in this attack so they can add them to their own defensive measures to prevent attacks from those IP addresses against their networks and systems.”
This scepticism has been echoed throughout sections of the information security sector – with experts claiming that attribution is tricky at the best of times and that the Feds would be wise to hold fire until a detailed forensic examination has been undertaken.
US security vendor Norse, for example, claimed last week that any evidence linking North Korea to the attacks was purely circumstantial and that an investigation it undertook pointed to the involvement of a former employee.
Part of its reasoning is that the names of corporate servers and passwords were programmed into the malware fired at Sony, which would indicate an insider’s involvement.
Another sticking point is the motivation of North Korea. If it did carry out the attack in retaliation for The Interview, which lampoons the Kim Jong-un regime, the Guardians of Peace online missives didn’t even mention the movie until the media began pegging it as the cause.
It certainly wasn’t mentioned when the group were trying to extort a ransom for the stolen data online.
In the end, we’ll have to assume the Feds have more up their sleeves than they’ve admitted to right now if we’re to be convinced about the link to Pyongyang.
“Such information need not be shared with others as it would expose valuable intelligence sources, however knowing that is what is reinforcing the FBI’s claims would help those of us in the industry to accept those claims,” said Honan.
“The FBI do have very skilled technical individuals on the case which are no doubt supplemented by Sony’s own staff and any of the private computer security companies engaged by Sony. However, analysing log data and forensics takes a very long time so I would not be surprised to see additional details come out at a later stage.”