Search my blog for "insider threat" and you'll find plenty of previous posts. I wanted to include this post in my earlier holiday reading article, but I'd figure it was important enough to stand alone. I'm donning my flameproof suit for this one.
The cover story for the December 2006 Information Secuirty magazine, Protect What's Precious by Marcia Savage, clued me into what's wrong with security managment and their perceptions. This is how the article starts:
As IT director at a small manufacturer of specialized yacht equipment, Michael Bartlett worries about protecting the firm's intellectual property from outsiders. But increasingly, he's anxious about the threat posed by trusted insiders.
His agenda for 2007 is straightforward: beef up internal security.
"So far, we've been concentrating on the perimeter and the firewall, and protecting ourselves from the outside world," says Bartlett of Quantum Marine Engineering of Florida. "As the company is growing, we need to take better steps to protect our data inside."
Bartlett voices a common concern for many readers who participated in Information Security's 2007 Priorities Survey. For years, organizations' security efforts focused on shoring up network perimeters. These days, the focus has expanded to protecting sensitive corporate data from insiders--trusted employees and business partners--who might either maliciously steal or inadvertently leak information.
That sounds reasonable. As I see it, however, this shift to focus on the "inside threat" risks missing threats that are far more abundant.
First things first. Inside threat is not new. Check out the lead line from a security story:
You've heard it time and time again: Insiders constitute the greatest threat to your organization's security. But what can you do about it?
That's the lead from a July 2000 Information Security article called "Managing the Threat from Within".
Let's think about this for a moment. InfoSecMag in Dec 2006 mentioned that "organizations' security efforts focused on shoring up network perimeters," so turning inwards seems like a good idea. Wasn't looking inwards a good idea already in 2000? I'm probably not communicating my point very well, so here is another excerpt from the same Dec 2006 article:
Glen Carson, information security officer for California's Victim Compensation and Govern-ment Claims Board, says the problem stems more from a lack of user education than poor authentication.
His priority is education: explaining to the 350 users in his agency why data security is important and how it will help them in the long run.
"We recently completed a third-party security assessment and got a good test of our exterior shell, but internally our controls were lacking," he says.
I wonder if that "good test of our exterior shell" included client-side exploitation? I doubt it. Do you see where I am going?
Here's one other excerpt.
Mass-mailing worms may have gone the way of the boot-sector virus, but that does mean security managers don't have malware on their radar...
Yet there hasn't been a major outbreak since the Sasser worm in 2004, so what's all the fuss? Security managers will tell you that the lack of activity says a lot about the maturation of prevention technologies, advances in automated patch management tools, effectiveness of user awareness campaigns, and overall layered defense strategies.
Ok, are you laughing now? The reason why we're not seeing massive worms is that there's no money to be made in it. Everything is targeted these days. Even InfoSecMag admits it:
Exactly (minus the "facilitated by insiders" part -- says who, and why bother when remote client-side attacks are so easy?)
Here's my point: why are security managers so worried about Eva the Engineer or Stan the Secretary when Renfro the Romanian is stealing data right now. I read somewhere (I can't cite it now) that something like 70 million hosts on the Internet may be under illegitimate control. It may make sense to speak more of the number of hosts not compromised instead of those that are compromised. In 2004 the authors of the great book Rootkit claimed all of the Fortune 500 was 0wned. Why do we think it's any different now?
It's possible that taking steps to control trusted insiders will also slow down outsiders who have gained a foothold inside the enterprise. However, I don't see too many people clamping down on privileged users, and guess who powerful outsiders will be acting as when the compromise a site?
Of course we should care about insiders, and the insider threat is the only threat you can control. Outsiders are far more likely to cause an incident because, especially with the rise of client-side attacks, they are constantly interacting with your users. The larger the number of users you support, the greater the number of targets an outsider can exploit. Sure, more employees means more insider threats, but let's put this in perspective!
The fact that you offer a minimal external Internet profile does not mean you're "safe" from outsiders and that you can now shift to inside threats. The outsiders are deadlier now than they've ever been. They are in your networks and acting quietly to preserve their positions. Give Eva and Stan a break and don't forget Renfro. He's already in your company.