Survey reveals unexpected drop in insider attacks

Some experts are questioning recent findings that defy the conventional wisdom that insiders constitute the primary threat to enterprise security.

Only 38 per cent of the 455 respondents to the latest computer crime survey sponsored by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and the San Francisco-based Computer Security Institute (CSI) said they had 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 agencies’ statistics show that external threats far outweigh internal threats to their IT infrastructures.

“Our biggest threat is external,” said NASA CIO Lee Holcomb, acknowledging that 250 agency systems had been recently compromised externally in a matter of three weeks due to 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 threat from insiders 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” people who have access to a company’s internal systems based on contract or partnership arrangements with the 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.

Other experts agreed that internal threats warrant 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.”