Snowden's role provided 'perfect cover' for NSA data theft
NSA official says fugitive document leaker wasn't "that clever,' he just happened to be in right place at the right time
Computerworld - Fugitive document leaker Edward Snowden's role as a systems administrator provided easy access to classified National Security Agency documents sitting in a file-sharing location on the spy agency's intranet portal.
The documents were kept in the portal so that NSA analysts and other officials could read and discuss them online, NSA CTO Lonny Anderson told National Public Radio in an interview Wednesday.
As a contracted NSA systems administrator with top-secret Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI) clearance, Snowden could access the intranet site and move especially sensitive documents to a more secure location without raising red flags, Anderson said.
Thus, Snowden could steal the NSA Power Point slides, secret court orders and classified agency reports that he leaked to the media. "The assignment was the perfect cover for someone who wanted to leak documents," Anderson told NPR.
"His job was to do what he did. He wasn't a ghost. He wasn't that clever. He did his job," Anderson said.
Since the leaks, the NSA has taken several steps to plug such holes in its security. For instance, a new "two-person rule," which stipulates that two individuals with similar roles and authority must act together to execute specific functions, including the storing or backing up of data.
Those with privileged access to systems, like system and network administrators, are no longer anonymous on the NSA network -- all of their actions will be observable, Anderson told NPR.
The NSA has also started "tagging" sensitive data and documents to ensure that only people with a need to see a documents can access it. The document tagging rule also lets security auditors see how individuals with legitimate access to the data are actually using it, Anderson said.
While NSA employees can still access the intranet used by Snowden to steal documents, new controls won't allow such thefts to happen again, he said. "Could someone today do what [Snowden] did? No," Anderson claimed.
Anderson's revelations shed a bit more light on how Snowden could access and download tens of thousands of sensitive documents from the protected NSA systems. It's still unclear, though, how he managed to download the data onto thumb drives and take them from the workplace without being noticed.
Security experts have pointed to the Snowden caper as a classic example of how insiders, especially workers with privileged access to systems, could steal corporate data.
A survey of mostly medium-sized companies by security vendor Symplified earlier this year found that more than half had authorized network access to 250 or more external partners, contractors and consultants. About 55% of respondents said 1,500 or more employees have privileged access to corporate applications.
"Insider attacks and unauthorized access happen much more often than you may think," said Darren Platt, CTO of Symplified.
Platt said an employee, for instance, could download a customer database and take it to a competitor, a contractor could use his or her access to personnel information for personal gain, or a former employee could access applications as a corporate spy.
"Companies need to shift their thinking from an outside-in model of security to an inside out approach," said Eric Chiu, founder of Hytrust, a cloud infrastructure management company.
"Only by implementing strong access controls [like] the recent NSA 'two-man' rule as well as role-based monitoring, can you secure critical systems and data against these threats and prevent breaches as well as data center failures," he said.
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 email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Feds declare big win over Cryptolocker ransomware
- Hackers hit more businesses through remote access accounts
- P.F. Chang's post-breach move to manual processing is telling
- Microsoft withholds monster IE update from Windows 8.1 dawdlers
- In baffling move, TrueCrypt open-source crypto project shuts down
- 'Oleg Pliss' hack makes for a perfect teachable IT moment
- Give IE the heave-ho until Microsoft patches zero-day
- Hackers find first post-retirement Windows XP-related vulnerability
- Researcher claims two hacker gangs exploiting unpatched IE bug
- Update: Third of Internet Explorer users at risk from attacks
Read more about Security in Computerworld's Security Topic Center.
- 5 Ways Dropbox for Business Keeps Your Data Protected Protecting your data isn't a feature on a checklist, something to be tacked on as an afterthought. Download here to find out how...
- The Keys to Securing Data in a Collaborative Workplace Losing data is costly. IT professionals have spent years learning how to protect their organizations from hackers, but how do you ward off...
- Evaluating File Sync and Share Solutions: 12 Questions to Ask about Security File sync and share can increase productivity, but how do you pick a solution that works for you? Download to learn some important...
- The Truth About Cloud Security "Security" is the number one issue holding business leaders back from the cloud. But does the reality match the perception?
- What should I look for in a Next Generation Firewall? SANS Provides Guidance With so many vendors claiming to have a Next Generation Firewall (NGFW), it can be difficult to tell what makes each one different....
- Responding to New SSL Cybersecurity Threat The featured Gartner research examines current strategies to address new SSL cybersecurity threats and vulnerabilities. All Security White Papers | Webcasts
Our new bimonthly Internet of Things newsletter helps you keep pace with the rapidly evolving technologies, trends and developments related to the IoT. Subscribe now and stay up to date!