Insider threats hard to detect

Recent findings that insiders constitute the primary threat to enterprise security are being challenged by experts who insist the greater threat to security remains external.

Only 38 per cent of respondents to the latest computer crime survey sponsored by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and the San Francisco-based Computer Security Institute said they detected insider attacks during the preceding 12 months. That’s down from 49 per cent reported a year ago and 71 per cent reported in 2000.

Moreover, two federal CIOs, speaking at a recent conference sponsored by the Tiverton, R.I.-based National High Performance Computing and Communications Council, said their agency statistics show that external threats far outweigh internal threats to their IT infrastructures.

“Our biggest threat is external,” said U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration CIO Lee Holcomb, acknowledging that the agency recently had 250 systems compromised externally in a matter of three weeks because of vulnerabilities that had gone unpatched.

Insider activity is “much less severe than external” attempts to breach security, agreed Laura Callahan, CIO at the U.S. Department of Labor. She added that since Sept. 11, the agency has made a concerted effort to create what she called an internal “neighborhood watch” to ferret out suspicious activity.

But the insider threat has become more cunning and sophisticated, said Robert Wright, a computer security expert at the FBI’s National Infrastructure Protection Center. “Insiders are not just employees anymore,” Wright said, adding that “new technology makes insiders more dangerous than ever.”

According to Wright, the most effective insiders are often “keyholders” — those who have access to internal systems based on contract or partnership arrangements with an organization.

More important, the technology that malicious insiders now have at their disposal may make them harder to detect and more efficient, said Wright. New IT tools that can be employed to steal corporate data include key-chain-size hard drives, steganography (concealing data within a digital image) and wireless technology, said Wright.

Others agree that the internal threat warrants continued emphasis.

“I don’t believe that many corporations know that the majority of attacks occur behind the firewall,” said Mike Hager, vice-president of network security and disaster recovery at OppenheimerFunds Distributor Inc. in New York. “And most still believe the firewall will stop them.”

Steven Aftergood, a defense and intelligence analyst at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, is also skeptical about the comments of the U.S. Department of Labor and NASA CIOs.

“I would respond with two words: Robert Hanssen,” Aftergood said, referring to the arrest last year of the career FBI agent who is now considered to be the most damaging mole in the history of the intelligence community.

“The record seems clear,” said Aftergood. “The most devastating threats to computer security have come from individuals who were deemed trusted insiders.”