Insider Attack: Assessment, Prevention, and Recovery
Originally published by New Context.
An insider attack doesn't just apply to company network security. It also occurs whenever an insider uses their position to take or destroy information from a company. Today when we see one of these attacks, it is almost always connected to company data theft. In fact, data exfiltration made up 62% of all insider threats in 2020, followed by privilege misuse. It seems that not a week goes by where there isn't a report of some type of insider attack or another.
Inside attackers fall into one of two categories. They're either malicious, in that they use their position to hurt the company intentionally, or they're negligent—they didn't mean to cause a breach but did not follow proper security practices. The solution to both issues is to review both the technical and social causes of insider threats and take proactive monitoring steps to reduce risks.
The Social and Technical Roots of Insider Attacks
The first thing to know about insider threats is that every single company is vulnerable. Humans are unpredictable, and even the best vetting program can't catch every red flag. These issues commonly come about due to social or technical factors.
Social threats in an organization stem from employees' emotional status. Someone who feels overworked and under-appreciated is more likely to be lackadaisical in their security efforts. Meanwhile, someone who is terminated from employment or facing disciplinary action may be tempted to attack a system maliciously.
This was the case in an incident from March of 2020—when the need for personal protective equipment was at an all-time high. An employee at a medical equipment company lost his job. Three days after receiving his final paycheck, he logged in and edited over 100,000 records, resulting in massive shipment delays. He was able to do this because he'd previously created a secondary account. While his official credentials were suspended, no one thought to look into any additional accounts he could access.
The easiest way to get ahead of social threats is to treat employees with respect. Pay them well and appreciate their contributions. Take complaints against managers seriously. Employees who don’t feel their input is valued will stop giving important feedback. Of course, there will still be instances where someone needs to be let go. When this happens, it's imperative to double-check their access and close any potential gaps.
Technical issues usually result from someone having more access than necessary. This person may not have technical expertise but is given full admission by default. This was something seen in a Twitter hack that allowed bad actors to control the accounts of famous and influential people like Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Mike Bloomberg, and Joe Biden. In this case, the big issue was that over 1000 Twitter employees had access to tools that allowed them to change user accounts settings and transfer control. While only a small number of employees aided the bad actors, it's alleged that thousands could have done so.
While we want to believe the best of our employees, the fact is that something like this is impossible to predict. Having thousands of people with levels of access like that is a disaster waiting to happen.
Companies need to embrace the principle of least privilege. In this, the user account gets the absolute minimum level of access necessary to complete their job. Simply scaling back access could go a long way towards eliminating insider attacks.
Taking an organization's social and technical risks into account is the first step towards guarding against insider threats. There are also tools and policies organizations can use to locate and eliminate potential hazards.
Steps for Guarding Against Threats
Rarely does an employee suddenly decide to commit an insider attack out of the blue. There are often threats and behaviors that—if noticed—could prevent a far greater breach. For example, in the case involving the employee of the medical equipment company, had user access needs been audited, reviewed, and taken seriously, his second account may have been identified and the entire incident may have been avoided. They could have caught an issue like that by implementing specific checks and balances:
- Passive auditing: A passive audit involves monitoring code, traffic, and changes to the infrastructure at different periods and reviewing the results. This can help companies note when activity is outside of the norm and give them a good idea of what normal operations should look like. A write-only log—kept in a separate location—can be used to monitor these updates and eliminate access in the event of a threat.
- Central logging: If an organization only has logging on each server, but no central location where it's consolidated, it's simple for individuals to go in and change records to delete their footprints. Having logging that feeds into a central system ensures that all changes are effectively recorded and prevents workers from hiding their actions.
- Intrusion detection: Intrusion detection isn't just for monitoring for major threats—it can also alert companies of abnormal behaviors that may indicate a threat is coming. It can send up a warning when someone is accessing the system during off-hours or from unexpected locations. Any behavior that falls outside of standard access can be an indicator of an imminent insider attack.
Every organization is vulnerable to insider attacks, but there are ways to mitigate the threats. Treating employees well and establishing proper access levels is key. Meanwhile, a well-maintained system helps organizations locate concerning behaviors and eliminate risks.