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Premier 100: Confessions of a corporate spy

Ira Winkler offers chilling accounts of espionage

By Gary Anthes
March 8, 2005 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld -

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PHOENIX -- A former National Security Agency analyst who is now an expert on corporate espionage offered chilling accounts yesterday of his easy penetration into a variety of U.S. companies. In one case, in just a few hours he was able to make off with product plans and specifications worth billions of dollars.
Ira Winkler, global security strategist at CSC Consulting, spoke at Computerworld's Premier 100 IT Leaders Conference here and punctured several popular misconceptions about information security. Notably, he said that information security is not the same thing as computer security. Most of his success in penetrating companies, which had hired him to do just that, came from "social engineering" -- not from hacking into corporate networks.
"Never measure security budgets by IT," said Winkler, author of Spies Among Us: How to Stop the Spies, Terrorists, Hackers and Criminals You Don't Even Know You Encounter Every Day.
At one large company, for example, he persuaded a guard to admit him by saying he had lost his badge and presenting a business card as a substitute. He'd stolen the card -- which belonged to an employee who worked at the plant -- from a local restaurant that collected business cards in a jar for prize awards.
Winkler went on to exploit a number of security weaknesses, from doors he found unlocked to using forged signatures to using simple computer hacks. The result: Designs for nuclear reactors and other technologies were compromised, possibly with national security implications.
He even detected people in India hacking into the company's computers.
Ira Winkler, global security strategist at CSC Consulting
Ira Winkler, global security strategist at CSC Consulting
Image Credit: Asa Mathat
"Spies are interested in information, not just computers," he said. "You can protect a computer perfectly, but if someone throws out a classified printout, you are out of luck."
Winkler noted that he always starts a spy job by scouring information openly available on the Internet. At one company, he found out quickly which people to target by reading a company newsletter on the firm's Web site.
Lawyers are a fruitful target, too, he said, calling them "the worst for computer security."
Winkler said some companies make the mistake of trying to protect all information equally. Instead, they should devise a system similar to what's used by the military: Protecting "top-secret" information is given a higher priority than protecting "secret" or "confidential" data.
Winkler offered a formula that states that risk is equal to the product of threat, vulnerability and value (to be protected) divided by countermeasures. Only the countermeasures can be controlled, he said. Using the formula, evenqualitatively, can help security managers determine a "risk optimization point" -- the point at which additional expenditures on security do not produce a compensating reduction in risk.
"It's sort of like the 80/20 rule, except it's more like 95/5," he said. "You actually can reduce 95% of the vulnerability with 5% of effort."

Read more about Security in Computerworld's Security Topic Center.

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