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The Threat of the Insider

Most organizations and indeed security vendors have traditionally focused on the outsider threat when it comes to company security.  By this I'm referring to external hacker threats or threats from the internet and public untrusted networks.  These areas are generally out of the control of the organizational, unable to be manipulated by internal security controls and procedures.  Historically therefor the emphasis was placed on protecting the internal corporate network and resources from users, hackers and services that originated from outside the control of the organization.

Firewalls, Intrusion Detection Systems, Intrusion Prevention Systems and SQL Injection Attacks are amongst the commonly used vocabulary when referring to security from a best practice, education and vendor perspective.

However in recent years the concept of the insider threat has increased.  By this I refer to a systems attack generally originating from someone from within the organization.  Attack in this sense could be classified as anything that could impact the Confidentiality, Integrity or Availability of company information held within the internal network.  A breach in any one of the three main components of information protection could result in information disclosure, security risk, brand damage or compliance misalignment.

But why would a threat emerge from someone within the organization?  The first part is to identify the motive.  This could be be driven by a disgruntled employee, a recently terminated contractor or someone who has identified a process flaw that allows them to perform a fraudulent act.  The second component is the capability.  Whilst hackers require the knowledge of a system vunerability, a pseudonym user and password hacking tools, they will also need to perform blind research of services and process within the organization in order to make a damaging impact on the information held within.  An existing employee however, already has a genuine username and password, deep knowledge of sytems and business process as well as the potential to execute.

Most insider threats can be reduced by restricting user access to the concept of least privilege.  This is not a new idea.  An employee should only have access to the the most basic levels within the systems they require to perform their job.  This access should be managed, continually reviewed and audited.  Terminated users should have their access removed immediately and transferred  users (who have moved between jobs within an organization) should have had their access updated as soon as possible to reflect their new responsibilities.

Not all insider threat comes from active employee attacks.  Some is often based on bad business practice that an individual is simply following as part of their job.  Security education can play a large part in helping to identify insider threats resulting from poor security practice.  For example, access control systems could restrict only senior managers to have access to personal HR files.  However, who cleans down the printer at the end of the day to remove wasted print outs?  These print outs could well have been generated by a user with privileged access but the business process or lack of management could be resulting in a potential security breach further down the information chain.


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