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SANS Report author thinks better detection would prove almost all companies have already been compromised by insider attacks

Has your organization ever been attacked from the inside? Most companies would say no. In the latest report from the SANS Institute "Insider Threats and the Need for Fast and Directed Response"[1] only 34 percent of the more than 770 IT/security professionals in a range of industries said they'd experienced an insider attack. But Dr. Eric Cole, author of the SANS report, is adamant that virtually every organization has experienced such an attack, in some form. "I'm certain that the other 66 percent of organizations have indeed experienced an insider attack-they just don't know it," he says.

How can he be so sure? Those companies that know they've been compromised admit it took them a long time to realize it-typically 15 months. And most didn't detect it themselves, but found out from a third party, usually a law enforcement agency.

Together, those facts suggest that yes, even if you don't think so your organization could have already been hacked from the inside. Even worse, attacks from within often cause the most damage. The report makes the case that although external attacks have been getting more press, insider attacks can be more damaging, for two reasons. First, insiders typically have unfettered access to sensitive data. Second, because few companies can detect such attacks, the breach can continue undetected for long periods of time, doing significant damage as it compromises your security, confidential information, and IP, or resulting in fraud or abuse.

The cost of insider breaches is approximately $231 million worth of losses every year, but it's likely that a much greater amount of damage is occurring without being detected. Nearly one out of five (19 percent) respondents believe that the potential loss from an insider threat is more than $5 million. Another 15 percent put it at $1 to $5 million... but no organization can fully measure damage to its brand.

How would you know about an internal attack?
If you don't think your organization has suffered an internal attack, ask yourself: how would you know if it has? Most companies focus their security infrastructure on identifying and preventing external attacks at the perimeter, not detection of anomalous internal and outbound activity. Attackers have figured this out, which is why they are increasingly focusing their efforts on insider attacks, such as taking over the profile of a legitimate user. That way, they can fly under the security radar-right to the heart of the business.

In the survey, 68 percent of respondents considered themselves able to prevent or deter an insider attack. Slightly more than half (51 percent) of these businesses believe their prevention methods are "effective" or "very effective." But how can they be sure?  Most organizations lack tools that could detect an insider attack.

So, what about your organization-would your tools be able to alert you if you have been attacked? What exactly are they designed to detect or prevent and have you thoroughly tested how effective they are at that? Were they even designed to detect whether internal systems were compromised? To find out, put on your black hat and try these exercises:

  • Stealth the setting up of an outbound command and control channel to see if you get caught
  • Simulate insider threat exercises
  • Target users with phishing emails to see who clicks on what
  • Try to break into a low-level internal system and leverage it to move deeper into the organization

Most companies haven't run these tests. But until you do, you can't say for certain whether you could detect these types of insider threats-or that you've never been compromised by an insider attack. Without hard data, you just don't know.

Prevention is ideal, but detection is a must
If you run the above exercises, chances are you'll conclude your organization needs to invest in detection. That's a shift in focus from the traditional commitment to prevention, but Cole is adamant: "Prevention is ideal, but detection is a must."

So while your organization may already have tools and processes that can help protect from insider threats-such as a tool that blocks executables in web links, or a process of sandboxing and validating content that could be dangerous, or specific use cases in security incident and event management solutions-the backbone of your defense against insider attacks has to be detection tools focused on users. Effective detection requires an integration of tools, processes, and people-and 24x7 vigilance-to seek out and identify the anomalies that point to an insider threat. You need to baseline activity and then look for the anomalies that reveal attacks. A wide range of tools and techniques is available to help, such as internal auditing tools, internal network monitoring, centralized log management, SIEM tools, external network monitoring, employee monitoring, and so on. [figure 12 below]

Invest in detection
But first, you need to get the funding to invest in the tools you need. Most organizations focus security spending on blocking external threats, partly because they can't or don't distinguish between the damage from external and internal attacks. As long as companies remain focused on the external threat, they'll invest more in preventing external attacks than in detecting internal problems.

Cole gives an example of an analysis he conducted for a pharmaceutical organization, in which he was able to show that 80 percent of the damage from cyber threats came from those that originated internally-but the company was spending 75 percent of its threat prevention budget on deflecting external threats and only 25 percent on identifying and remediating internal threats.

It's a catch-22. If you don't monitor outbound activity and user activity and look for anomalies, you are lulled into thinking that there are no internal threats, so you don't invest in the tools that could reveal that your organization is at serious risk.

In the SANS report three-quarters (74 percent) of survey respondents said they are concerned about negligent or malicious employees. Their greatest concerns-the top five of eight-all have to do with data being compromised or stolen, and the damage that results from that. These are serious risks, but the report showed that despite the concern, only 20 percent of respondents indicated they will actually increase their spending on the issue to seven percent or more next year.  [figure 5 below]

Fast response minimizes damage
While it's good that organizations are concerned about insider threats, awareness alone won't protect a business. The gap between growing awareness and lagging action is dangerous. You can tell employees to beware of email attachments, but if users get emails that look like they legitimately come from their bosses, they will likely open them. Externally focused security aims to minimize damage by keeping the malware vector from making it to the users, but if that fails, it's vital that the company has a second line of defense: internally focused security that can track anomalies to rapidly detect potential problems.

Rapid detection matters. Detecting and shutting down an insider threat within 30 minutes is infinitely better than detecting it after 30 months-or never knowing about it at all. In the survey, only 10 percent of respondents said they could detect a problem in less than an hour, and only 13 percent could mitigate it in that time frame. Perhaps even more disturbing, however, is that the most common answer to "how long did it take to detect/mitigate the attack" is "don't know." Especially with insider attacks, what companies don't know can and will hurt them. [figure 15 below]

Organizations must focus more resources on detecting and remediating insider threats. Look for any gaps in your ability to monitor activity and detect anomalies, and then seek out specific third-party solutions that can complement what you currently have in place. That way, if a survey team or your boss or an auditor asks whether you've ever suffered an insider attack, you'll be able to say-with a lot of detection and monitoring data to back you up-that you've been attacked many times but haven't suffered any serious consequences. And that's much better than saying-with no data to corroborate your statement-that you've never been attacked at all.

Reference:

1. Insider Threats and the Need for Fast and Directed Response, A SANS Survey. Dr. Eric Cole, April 2015

More Stories By Mike Tierney

Mike Tierney is the Chief Operating Officer at SpectorSoft, a leader in user activity monitoring and user behavior analytics. SpectorSoft develops software that helps businesses identify and detect insider threats, conduct efficient and accurate investigations, and enhance productivity. Mike is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the company and has a strong background in product strategy and management.

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