DuPont Data Theft Shows Insider Risks

Scientist downloaded thousands of documents without being detected

Gary Min worked as a scientist at DuPont for 10 years, focusing on research involving a type of high-performance film. He also covertly used DuPont’s computer systems to steal trade secrets valued at more than $400 million shortly before joining a rival company.

Min’s case, the details of which were unsealed last week by the U.S. attorney’s office in Delaware, is the latest — and perhaps most extreme — example of the dangers posed to corporate data by rogue insiders.

According to the court records, Min pleaded guilty in November to stealing proprietary data from DuPont by illegally downloading or accessing thousands of documents stored in an electronic library. Min, who also uses the first name Yonggang, is scheduled to be sentenced March 29 and faces a maximum of 10 years in prison plus a fine of up to $250,000.

What happened at DuPont vividly shows how trusted insiders can exploit IT weaknesses, as well as the challenges that companies face in stopping people from misusing systems, said Matt Kesner, chief technology officer at law firm Fenwick & West LLP in Mountain View, Calif.

User-by-User Security

“The old security model looked at the castle and ways to protect it with perimeter defenses,” Kesner said, noting that it made “intuitive sense” to many IT and security managers to implement firewalls, intrusion detection systems and other defenses aimed at preventing outsiders from breaking in. But that model is inadequate for dealing with insider threats, Kesner said.

“Frankly, we all have to actively stop thinking of insider vs. outsider” and focus on improving access controls for all users, he said. “It means looking at each and every person and machine as an island and deciding what rights and access each person and machine needs or doesn’t need.”

According to the information released last week, Min downloaded about 22,000 document abstracts from DuPont’s Electronic Data Library (EDL) server and accessed another 16,700 full-text PDF files. The various documents covered most of the company’s major products and technologies, including some that were still in the research and development stage.

The illegal activity occurred during a five-month period just prior to Min’s departure from DuPont in December 2005, the U.S. attorney’s office said. When the downloading began that August, Min was in active job discussions with Victrex PLC, a company based in Thornton Cleveleys, England, that he signed on with in October 2005 but didn’t join until the following January.

Although Min downloaded or accessed about 15 times more documents than the next-heaviest user of the EDL did during the period in question, his activities appear to have gone unnoticed until after he submitted his resignation.

At that time, an internal investigation uncovered his activities, and DuPont reported the downloads to the FBI and the U.S. Department of Commerce. Even so, Min was able to upload another 180 DuPont documents onto a Victrex-supplied laptop a full month after he had left DuPont.

No details were disclosed on what prompted the internal probe or about how or from where Min was able to access DuPont data after he had left the company.

The U.S. attorney’s office said DuPont contacted Victrex officials in the U.K. and told them of the theft of the 180 documents, after which Victrex seized the laptop it had given to Min and handed the system over to the FBI.

A subsequent raid of Min’s home in Ohio on Feb. 14, 2006, uncovered several computers that contained confidential DuPont information. Federal agents also found numerous garbage bags that were filled with shredded DuPont technical documents, plus evidence that documents had been burned in a fireplace.

As the agents entered the house, Min launched a software erasure program on one of the computers in an attempt to destroy the contents of its hard drive, the U.S. attorney’s office said.

A statement issued by DuPont last week commended the U.S. attorney’s office and the other federal agencies involved in the investigation for their “leadership and professionalism” in dealing with the issue. It added that the data Min accessed doesn’t appear to have been disseminated. A DuPont spokesman declined to comment on the case beyond the statement.

“What happened at DuPont is not surprising at all,” said Phil Neray, vice president of product management at Guardium Inc., a database security tools vendor in Waltham, Mass. Neray said the apparently unfettered access that Min had to the data on DuPont’s EDL server is evidence of the lack of monitoring that’s typical inside corporate networks.

“The objective should be to give insiders as much access as they need but no more,” Neray said. That involves the use of monitoring mechanisms that detect unusual activity and send out alerts when it occurs, such as when a user attempts to download large volumes of information, he added. 

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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