Why privilege can be risky

Shutterstock image (by GlebStock): hacker with graphic user interface.

Even with more detailed information becoming available about network users' behavior, federal IT managers still have concerns about privileged users and the potential for malicious insider access, according to a new study.

The Ponemon Institute polled 704 high-level commercial and federal managers of IT networks, enterprise systems, applications and information assets on behalf of cybersecurity firm Forcepoint (formerly Raytheon/Websense).

According to the report on the results, 58 percent of respondents said their organizations assign privileged access rights that go beyond the individual's need to know.

Mike Crouse, Forcepoint's director of insider threat strategies, told FCW that those findings were fairly uniform across federal and commercial networks because both types of organizations are guarding valuable data and have potentially dangerous insiders.

"It's about people with access to sensitive data" in both cases, he said.

Furthermore, Crouse said the governmentwide cybersecurity sprint in 2015, launched in the wake of the Office of Personnel Management data breaches, seems to have raised awareness of the issue.

"In the last year, cybersecurity has become a priority" for federal agencies, he said. "There has been additional funding, as well as more attention to insider threats and overall awareness of processes."

During the sprint, agencies began a broad effort to impose two-factor authentication and reduce the number of federal users with privileged access. Crouse said agencies also began to more actively monitor user activity and quantify that activity as the sprint concluded.

The good news, however, is tempered with some stark findings about privileged users. Only 51 percent of the survey’s federal respondents said they believe their organizations can effectively monitor privileged users’ activities, while 56 percent said they are somewhat to not at all confident that they have enterprisewide visibility into user access.

Despite the technology to keep track of privileged users' activities, a dangerous human element remains, according to the study. Forty-eight percent of responders said they believed malicious insiders would use social engineering to get someone else's access rights, and 56 percent said they believed outsiders could wheedle their way into networks through social engineering targeted at privileged users.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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