Every threat is an insider threat

Instead of focusing on breaching the perimeter, attackers have increasingly shifted to compromising the human layer.

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

With the fallout of the data breach at the Office of Personnel Management still in the news cycle, now is a good time for federal organizations to reflect on the state of their own security and the sophistication of their enemies.

There are many security analysts out there who are more than willing to give their two cents on what the OPM did wrong, but we can all agree that the department was woefully ill prepared to address the tactics of their adversary.

The reality is that most attackers are not breaking into networks; they are just logging in. Defenders are waiting for threat actors to hack through the firewall, but it is easier and more effective for attackers to compromise the credentials and access privileges of organization insiders, then operate with all of the privileges of legitimate users. They are turning innocent users into insider threats.

OPM, which handles security clearances and houses sensitive information on millions of current, former and potential government employees, is no exception to this trend. The attackers gained access to the OPM network by compromising and stealing credentials from KeyPoint Government Solutions, a contractor used to conduct background checks. This gave the attackers the insider privileges needed to persist on the OPM network and steal critical information such as Social Security numbers and medical records of federal employees.

The moral of the story is that traditional perimeter security is no longer adequate. Organizations of all kinds need to be prepared to address insider threats, whether it is a malicious employee or their compromised credentials. The attackers will get past the gate eventually. The only way to stop them then is to monitor internal network activity – leaving the threats with no place to hide – and respond to security events before they become breaches.

OPM became a victim because they had minimal internal security. A report from the Inspector General in November 2014 outlined some of the security shortcomings of the office:

  • There was no comprehensive and maintained list of servers, databases and network devices.
  • Not all OPM systems were adequately monitored.
  • Multi-factor authentication was not required to access OPM systems.

Furthermore, the critical data, including Social Security numbers, were not encrypted because it was not feasable on systems as old as OPM's, according to agency CIO Donna Seymour.

Today's advanced threats have adapted to traditional security measures by focusing on compromising legitimate access credentials. If OPM had been prepared to deal with a threat from inside the network, this breach may have been prevented.

What is behind this shift in tactics?

Over the past few decades, organizations have been pumping billions of dollars into strengthening their perimeters and managing vulnerabilities. Meanwhile, the rise of remote access and personal mobile devices have broadened the threat surface and brought more sensitive data in contact with the internet.

Instead of focusing on breaching the perimeter, attackers have just shifted to compromising the human layer, which is more reachable now than ever before. In many organizations, employees have generous access privileges and the ability to log into the network remotely, which means attackers have ample opportunities to utilize compromised credentials. Additionally, personal information about employees is widely accessible via social media sites like Facebook or LinkedIn, which gives attackers better insight into how to fool them.

Here's a hypothetical scenario: An attacker has managed to track down an employee named Mark on social media. Mark likes to talk about his job and his favorite online poker site. The attacker sends Mark an email posing as a representative from the poker site with an attached brochure on new services, complete with malware. Mark opens the attachment without a second thought, and a few days later the malware sends keystroke information – including his VPN login credentials – back to the attacker.

Now Mark has effectively become an insider threat. Unfortunately, no matter how strong our castle walls are, users who appear legitimate are able to walk right through the front gate.

How to catch an insider threat

Since it is nearly impossible to stop an insider threat at the gate, early detection is key. Fortunately for us, an attack requires more than the initial breach. The perpetrators still must execute a number of steps before their goal is complete, and we can stop them at any point in this process.

The first thing an organization needs to catch an insider threat is network visibility. If firewalls are armed guards at the gate, visibility is the security camera monitoring the inside of the building. Telemetry should be collected from every area of the network. Internal traffic data, access logs, policy violations and more must be watched continuously for suspicious activity. Leaving an area unmonitored gives your attacker a place to hide on your network.

Know what a regular day looks like on your network. Know how much traffic to expect, who is expected to access sensitive information and what applications are used in the day-to-day business operation. Anything that falls outside of those bounds should be investigated. Remember that compromised credentials will look legitimate until you isolate anomalous activity such as moving abnormally large amounts of data, repeated logins during nonbusiness hours or remote access from unusual and faraway locations.

Agencies should be able to identify the following activities:

  • Unauthorized access
  • Violation of organization policies
  • Internal reconnaissance
  • Data hoarding
  • Data loss

Data analytics can make a huge difference here. If an organization is large, it can be impossible to monitor network activity manually. Anything important is quickly drowned out by the plethora of ordinary information. Using NetFlow and other network metadata, a good security analytics tool can help the relevant information rise to the top.

Agencies also should keep an audit trail of network transactions for as long as is feasible. When struck by an insider attack, the audit trail can be used to identify how the threat operated and what assets were compromised. It may also help the authorities pursue criminal charges against the attacker.

Lastly, don't forget that these attackers thrive on compromising the human layer. Train employees on best practices for using the internet, and on how to recognize social engineering tactics like phishing. Use network segmentation to limit the amount of sensitive data each user has access to, and monitor traffic from third-party contractors for possible compromised credentials.

As the number of access points and connected devices continue to grow, it has become easier for cybercriminals to appear as a legitimate insider. While this trend comes with a new set of challenges than other security concerns, organizations can protect themselves with the right tools and mindset. And early detection of these intruders can keep a security event from becoming the next big breach plastered across the evening news.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.