Malicious Insiders Remain a Difficult and Growing Problem

Earlier this month, the Department of Justice unsealed a criminal complaint against a contractor for the National Security Agency, alleging the theft of highly classified information. Like Edward Snowden in 2013, Harold Thomas Martin III, 51, of Glen Burnie, Maryland, worked for Booz Allen Hamilton and is accused of exploiting his insider access in order to remove classified files.

According to the complaint, search warrants executed in August discovered stolen documents, digital files and government property in Martin’s residence and vehicle. Six of the classified documents contained sensitive intelligence dating back to 2014.

“These documents were produced through sensitive government sources, methods and capabilities, which are critical to a wide variety of national security issues,” the DOJ wrote. “[The] documents are currently and properly classified as Top Secret, meaning that unauthorized disclosure reasonably could be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security of the U.S.”

A second case of insider theft at the NSA in three years has once again raised the issue of malicious insiders and the challenges of preventing employees, vendors and other third-parties from causing a major data breach.

Growing Concern Around Insider Activity

Defense is just one of many groups rightfully concerned about insider threats. A recent survey of 500 security professionals from enterprise companies found that one in three organizations had experienced an insider data breach within the past year. In addition, 56 percent of those security professionals said that insider threats have become more frequent over the past 12 months.

Since January 2016, SurfWatch Labs has collected data on more than 180 industry targets associated with the “insider activity” tag. Of those, Healthcare Facilities and Services is the top trending group with 35 total targets, followed by Software with 18 total targets.

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Not all data breaches caused by insiders are intentional. In fact, the majority of insider breaches are caused by a combination of employee errors, negligence, lost devices or other unintentional disclosures, according to SurfWatch Labs’ data.

The more malicious “employee data theft” tag is tied to less than one-fifth of all the targets associated with insider activity.

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However, there is growing concern around that small percentage of malicious insiders — particularly those who may be using their knowledge and access to sell information anonymously on the dark web.

As Verizon’s Data Breach Investigations Report noted, insider activity is among the most difficult issues to detect. Nearly half of the insider incidents evaluated by Verizon took months to discover, and more than a fifth of the incidents took years.

That concern is amplified by the ease in which insiders can monetize their access to sensitive information due to the growing popularity of dark web markets and anonymous digital currencies such as bitcoin — a concern shared by many in law enforcement. In September, Europol announced the creation of a working group designed to look into the those currencies, which the agency said is “already transforming the criminal underworld.”

“Europol, INTERPOL, and the Basel Institute on Governance are concerned about the seriousness of these threats and note the increasing use of new kinds of currencies,” Europol wrote in a press release. “To trace assets transferred, laundered, exchanged or stored through the use of cryptocurrencies poses new and distinctive challenges to investigators and prosecutors, as does the seizure and confiscation of the proceeds of crime in cryptocurrencies.”

Financial gain remains the primary motivator for insiders, according to Verizon. Thirty-four percent of insider breaches are profit-driven, followed by espionage, which accounts for a quarter of insider breaches.

Monitoring Cybercriminal Channels

It’s unclear exactly how the NSA discovered its recent insider theft, so it’s hard to judge the extent of which the agency’s post-Snowden security reforms may have aided in identifying Martin’s alleged theft — or what lessons, if any, can be extrapolated to help protect other organizations.

In addition to monitoring employees and creating a positive corporate culture to minimize disgruntled employees, as Verizon suggested, organizations can also benefit from monitoring dark web markets and cybercriminal forums for any signs of yet-to-be detected breaches.

For example, SurfWatch Labs recently observed a user of a dark web forum claiming to have insider access at a money transfer company, and in June, Brian Krebs shared a screenshot of an insider at Guitar Center boasting that the fraud he or she was proposing would “have no way of coming back to me.”

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Source: Brian Krebs

“I currently have approvals and passwords that allow me to manually enter CC [credit cards] at the registers of Guitar Center, Bypassing the usual 3 code verify,” the insider wrote. “I also have physical access to the server room and I am looking to exploit this with the help of some seriously skilled people.”

The fact that a disgruntled employee or contractor can go unnoticed, in many cases for years, while monetizing stolen information via anonymous cryptocurrencies is a scary thought for many organizations, particularly since a significant percentage of insider attacks are carried by low-level employees.

“When their roles were classified in the incident, almost one third [of insiders] were found to be end users who have access to sensitive data as a requirement to do their jobs,” Verizon noted. “Only a small percentage (14%) are in leadership roles (executive or other management), or in roles with elevated access privilege jobs such as system administrators or developers (14%). The moral of this story is to worry less about job titles and more about the level of access that every Joe or Jane has (and your ability to monitor them).”

Monitoring for insider threats, either within an organization or via external sites, may not stop a breach that has already happened, but it can help to shorten the discovery so that it is not going on for years, as is often the case.

Author: Jeff Peters

SurfWatch Labs editor and host of SurfWatch Labs Cyber Chat podcast. Focused on using threat intelligence and data visualization in order to bring cybercrime to life and help make organizations safer.

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