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Insider threat to security may be harder to detect, experts say

By Dan Verton
April 12, 2002 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Recent findings that insiders constitute the primary threat to enterprise security are being challenged by experts who insist the greater threat to security remains external.

Only 38% of respondents to the latest computer crime survey sponsored by the FBI and the San Francisco-based Computer Security Institute said they detected insider attacks during the preceding 12 months. That's down from 49% reported a year ago, and 71% reported in 2000.

Moreover, two federal CIOs, speaking at a recent conference sponsored by the Tiverton, R.I.-based National High Performance Computing and Communications Council, said their agency statistics show that external threats far outweigh internal threats to their IT infrastructures.

"Our biggest threat is external," said NASA CIO Lee Holcomb, acknowledging that the agency recently had 250 systems compromised externally in a matter of three weeks because of vulnerabilities that had gone unpatched.

Insider activity is "much less severe than external" attempts to breach security, agreed Laura Callahan, CIO at the U.S. Department of Labor. She added that since Sept. 11, the agency has made a concerted effort to create what she called an internal "neighborhood watch" to ferret out suspicious activity.

But the insider threat has become more cunning and sophisticated, said Robert Wright, a computer security expert at the FBI's National Infrastructure Protection Center. "Insiders are not just employees anymore," Wright said, adding that "new technology makes insiders more dangerous than ever."

According to Wright, the most effective insiders are often "keyholders" -- those who have access to internal systems based on contract or partnership arrangements with an organization.

More important, the technology that malicious insiders now have at their disposal may make them harder to detect and more efficient, said Wright. New IT tools that can be employed to steal corporate data include key-chain-size hard drives, steganography (concealing data within a digital image) and wireless technology, said Wright.

Others agree that internal threats warrant continued emphasis.

"I don't believe that many corporations know that the majority of attacks occur behind the firewall," said Mike Hager, vice president of network security and disaster recovery at OppenheimerFunds Distributor Inc. in New York. "And most still believe the firewall will stop them."

Steven Aftergood, a defense and intelligence analyst at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, is also skeptical about the comments of the U.S. Labor Department and NASA CIOs.

"I would respond with two words: Robert Hanssen," Aftergood said, referring to the arrest last year of the career FBI agent who is now considered to be the most damaging mole in the history of the intelligence community.

"The record seems clear," said Aftergood. "Themost devastating threats to computer security have come from individuals who were deemed trusted insiders."

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