DARPA launches insider threat detection effort for military

Goal is to deliver tools for detecting, mitigating threats from insiders

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has launched a project for detecting and responding to insider threats on Department of Defense networks.

Under the Cyber Insider Threat (CINDER) Program, DARPA will explore new approaches for improving the speed and accuracy of insider threat detection. The agency last week sought proposals for ways to identity hostile insider activity by monitoring specific user and network behaviors.

In the initial stage of the project, the goal is not necessarily to develop new ways of detecting individual malicious insiders themselves. Instead, DARPA hopes to figure out the tell-tale signs and network activities that organizations should monitor to accurately detect malicious activity.

"If we were looking for the insider actor himself, we might not detect someone who performs a single, isolated task and we run the risk of being inundated with false positives from events being triggered without context of a mission," DARPA said. "To this end, CINDER starts with the premise that most systems and networks have already been compromised by various types and classes of adversaries. These adversaries are already engaged in what appear to be legitimate activities, while actually supporting adversary missions."

In the next two phases of the three-part CINDER effort, DARPA will develop systems that can monitor networks and user activity and spot malicious activity more quickly.

The CINDER initiative comes just a few weeks after whistleblower Web site Wikileaks posted more than 70,000 documents containing sensitive details on American military operations in Afghanistan. The documents were allegedly leaked to the site by Bradley Manning, a relatively junior Army intelligence analyst who is also accused of supplying Wikileaks with a controversial video allegedly showing a deadly U.S Apache helicopter attack in Iraq.

Manning's alleged actions have prompted widespread criticism from those who believe the data has put critical U.S. intelligence and military assets in Afghanistan in harm's way. The leaks have also highlighted the risks associated with the information-sharing that has been going on within the military for some time.

Networks such as the Defense Department's Secret Internet Protocol Router Network or SIPRNet, which Manning is alleged to have accessed, are designed to pass along important information as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Detecting malicious insider activity is difficult. "What sets the insider threat apart from other adversaries is the use of normal tactics to accomplish abnormal and malicious missions," DARPA said.

The same issue has dogged enterprises for years and is considered by many analysts to pose an even greater threat to corporate data and networks than external hackers.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

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