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Contributing writer

SOURCE Boston: Confronting the insider threat

May 20, 20163 mins
Data and Information SecurityData BreachSecurity

Low tech still trumps high tech when it comes to stopping insider breaches, whether malicious or just careless. But behavioral analytics can help close the gap

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It is still possible for a careless or malicious employee to defeat the best security technology an organization can deploy.

But technology is evolving to make it less likely.

That was the bad news/good news scenario from Brian Contos, vice president and chief security strategist at Securonix, speaking at SOURCE Boston earlier this week.

[ MORE FROM SOURCE BOSTON: Medical devices still vulnerable, but things may be changing ]

Contos, in a talk titled, “Insider Threats: Evil Employees and the Nation States and Competitors Who Love Them,” acknowledged that not all employees responsible for breaches are intentionally evil. Some are just careless.

But the reality remains that the insider threat remains one of the most intractable in cybersecurity.

“Low tech trumps high tech,” he said, noting that most of the technology designed for security is aimed at, “the nameless, faceless, far-away bad guy,” not at insiders with legitimate access to company networks.

He said the average time it takes to uncover the actions of a malicious insider is 55 days, and the average cost per day of the damage is about $21,000, putting the total at more than $1.15 million.

Sometimes they are caught. Contos mentioned the infamous case of Gary Min, who worked as a research chemist for Dupont for 10 years. In 2005, when he decided to take a job with a competitor in Asia, he downloaded and took electronic documents worth about $400 million. He was caught and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

It turned out Min’s behavior was blatantly anomalous. “In his last few weeks (with Dupont) he was downloading 15 times the amount other employees were downloading,” Contos said.

But other cases do not end so well for the victims. Contos told of a drug cartel in Central America that sent a phishing email to an executive at an oil and gas company that, “had to do with a photo of a soccer game.”

The executive clicked on it and once the attackers were inside the system, they were able to gain access to, “90 percent of all the C-level executives. They even were able to turn on video cameras and mics,” he said. “They were inside for two years – and energy means national security.”

There are a number of ways to lower the chances of an insider attack, he said. Indicators include an employee’s financial and personal problems, along with unhappiness in the job. Aldrich Ames, the former CIA officer who became a mole for the Russian KGB, “had an alcohol problem, six kids in school, was going through a divorce, living beyond his means,” he said.

Money is not always the motive however. “With millennials, ideology is taking on a greater role,” he said – the most famous of whom is Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who exposed the agency’s surveillance of American citizens.

Personality profiling is not always accurate. “The socially awkward male is almost never the one,” he said. “There is no specific profile – people are complicated.”

Technology can tip the balance in the organization’s favor, if it is used wisely, he said, to track anomalous behavior.

“An employee who is going somewhere he’s never gone before, creating a new account, bypassing his usual access is worth watching,” he said. “So is data egress and then an account being deleted,” he said.

It doesn’t automatically mean an employee is malicious, he said, but that kind of behavior should set off alarms.

“You have to look at things in context,” he said, “but they can be pointers to something bad happening.”