Corporate databases at greater risk of insider attacks

About a year ago, a senior manager at Pilz GmbH left the company to work at a rival firm — and took some classified data about an unfinished vision-based camera safety system with him.

If it hadn’t been for the honesty of executives at the rival business, more than five years of research and development work would have gone down the drain, said Steve Farrow, managing director at Pilz, which is in Ostfildern, Germany. “It would have impacted our product development and allowed one or two competitors to catch up with us much more quickly,” he said. Farrow didn’t identify the rival company.

The incident is a classic example of the threat rogue insiders pose to your data and systems at any time. But as the faltering economy forces companies to turn to job cuts, wage and bonus freezes, outsourcing and other belt-tightening moves, the risks are multiplying, analysts said.

“All of these [cost-cutting measures] increase risk for the company from an insider perspective,” said Shelley Kirkpatrick , director of assessment services at Management Concepts Inc., a consulting firm in Vienna, Va. “When there is uncertainty, it creates stress for employees [and] makes the company more vulnerable.”

Thus, corporate executives must be very vigilant, especially today, in learning what warning signs to look for and how to respond to them, said Matt Doherty , a senior vice president at Hillard Heintze LLC, a Chicago-based security consulting firm.

Red flags could include an employee who suddenly starts working long hours for no obvious reason, or someone seeking access to systems and information not needed in his job. IT managers should also be on the lookout for employees who print out large volumes of data after hours or who send information to themselves via e-mail.

Doherty also said it’s important that companies train supervisors to spot distressed employees. “It’s critical for a supervisor to be aware of the employees — who they are and what’s going on in their lives. It’s really about keeping a finger on the pulse,” he added.

Kirkpatrick suggested that companies set up a cross-functional team consisting of IT, human resources, corporate security, legal and operations department managers to quickly deal with potential insider attacks.

“There are [often] warning signs. But they are not always listened to,” she said.

Ted Julian , vice president of marketing at Application Security Inc., a New York-based vendor of security tools, added that companies should have controls to monitor privileged user activity to make sure managers and technology professionals with elevated access rights don’t “rob you blind.” “Some sort of monitoring on your most sensitive systems is a must,” he said.

Several recent incidents show that the threat of data theft from insiders with privileged access should not be underestimated.

In July, Terry Childs , a disgruntled administrator working for the city of San Francisco, locked access to a critical network by resetting administrative passwords to its switches and routers. After he was caught, Childs refused to divulge the passwords for days.

In a similar incident last fall, Yung-Hsun Lin, a Unix systems administrator at Medco Health Solutions Inc. in Franklin Lakes, N.J., planted a logic bomb on an internal system that would have deleted data on 70 servers if it had gone off. Lin had feared he was going to be laid off from the health care provider.

Farrow noted that last year’s theft of confidential data at Pilz was not an isolated incident — the company was victimized by insiders at least two other times over the past couple of years. In one incident, minutes from a confidential board meeting were leaked to a major competitor, Farrow said.

The maker of automation technology has since deployed an enterprise rights management tool from Waltham, Mass.-based Liquid Machines Inc. to better limit access to confidential documents and control how that data can be used.

Analysts said that unless IT managers further beef up their defenses, such incidents are likely to continue.

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