Wednesday, May 13

The SOFT Insider Threat

I've written a lot about the insider threat and what it means to me. A while back, I spoke to IT Business Edge about my opinion that non-malicious insiders pose a greater risk of causing a breach than malicious insiders. Many in the industry still claim that insiders should not be a major cause for concern and that external threats should get the lion's share of attention.

It's fairly easy to see that malicious attacks cause immediate and expansive financial harm. But, the unintentional or at least non-malicious insider breaches, which I'll call the Soft Insider Threat, occurs far more often – perhaps hundreds of times every day.

Today, I read a story in NetworkWorld titled Inside a Data Leak Audit that illustrates my story.

The IT Director at a pharmaceutical firm facilitated a data leakage audit for his company. Before the audit, the firm believed they "were in good shape". They "had done internal and external audits" and "extensive penetration testing". They had intrusion detection and prevention solutions, laptop encryption, and employee training. What they found out is that "you can do all that and it's just not enough."

The audit, conducted by Networks Unlimited, revealed gaping holes, including:
  • 700 leaks of critical information, such as Social Security numbers, pricing, financial information and other sensitive data in violation of the PCI-DSS standards.
  • Over 4,000 incidents that ran counter to HIPAA and Defense Department Information Assurance Certification rules.
  • More than 1,000 cases of unencrypted password dissemination, such as to access personal, Web-based e-mail accounts.
A few specific examples:
  • Employees sent ZIP files and attachments of confidential documents in unencrypted emails.
  • An employee attached a clinical study report in an unencrypted email to an outside vendor.
  • An employee sent sensitive employee compensation data to an outside survey company inc. salary, bonuses, sales quota, stock options, granted share price and more.
This single audit conducted on one company revealed 11,000 potential leaks that not only went unreported as data breaches, but wouldn't have even been known about or identified as problematic if the audit wasn't going on at the time.

I call them soft breaches because they're not intended to be harmful and may not ever cause harm or get noticed. But if they happen 10,000 times over the course of two weeks, that's 260,000 security violations each year. And those are real breaches that may violate HIPAA or PCI-DSS, expose employee and customer information, violate business contracts, and otherwise cause potential for harm. It should be pretty apparent that if this happens 260,000 times each year, that's a pretty big attack surface.

As the author and auditor say in the article, don't leave security in the hands of end-users. Automate the important stuff and track activity on a regular basis to ensure that your attack-surface is in-line with your risk tolerance. Don't ignore the soft insider threat just because it gets overlooked. That's the exact reason why you need to address it.


Jeffrey Huth said...

Matt, I was researching the privacy breach at Kaiser and read this:

"Since the law took effect Jan. 1, hospitals have reported about 300 incidents in which patient records were inappropriately accessed or disclosed. Most of those were inadvertent, such as giving discharge instructions or medication orders to the wrong patients, but some involved prying into patients' records without permission."

IT may not solve all these problems but it made me think of your post and more validation of the "soft insider threat"

Matt Flynn said...

Interesting. Thanks Jeff!