July 2007
Beer and Privacy (3 July 2007)
Belgian Court Rules ISPs Must Stop File-Sharing (5 July 2007)
The Greek Cellphone Tapping Scandal (6 July 2007)
Pen Registers and the Internet (7 July 2007)
Security and Usability: Windows Vista (13 July 2007)
Fidget Toys (13 July 2007)
Checkers: Solved (19 July 2007)
Secondary Uses and Privacy (20 July 2007)
Security Flaw in the iPhone (23 July 2007)
Hacking Forensic Software (26 July 2007)
Insider Attacks (28 July 2007)

Insider Attacks

28 July 2007

Of late, insider attacks have gained a lot of attention. Such attacks are quite pernicuous, not just for the damage they can do — and they can do a lot — but also because of the affect on morale. What should we do about the problem? There are no simple answers.

It should be noted that insider attacks are not one phenomenon. Rather, there are at least three different types of insider attacks. In general, the different types of attack require different defenses.

The first type of attack involves an abuse of discretion rather than any technical failing. That is, the misbehaving insider performs some action he or she is authorized to do, but for the wrong reason. To give on example, I, as a professor, have a fair amount of discretion in submitting grade change forms for past students. If, however, I choose to give good grades to people who pay me well, I would be acting improperly. This is an abuse of authority attack. (There have been recent allegations of just this sort of attack, at Touro College in New York and Diablo Valley College in California. In the former, those charged include the former director of admissions and the former director of the computer center. The accused in the California case are part-time student employees. The difference in rank is striking; employee malfeasance is not limited to any one stratum.)

There’s not a lot that can be done technically to prevent abuse of authority attacks. The best that can be done is to create copious log files, recording what was done, by whom, and when. Statistical analysis can spot who seems to be doing too many unusual or legitimate attacks. In event of a prosecution, these logs can be correlated with, say, bank deposit records. Of course, this means that the organization’s own logs need to be retained for long enough; failure to do that was a problem in the Greek cellphone tapping scandal. Other defenses are more procedural: two-party control, audits, and so on. (Note, of course, that technical mechanisms may be needed to support these defenses: are log files sufficient for an audit, is there proper support for two-party control, etc.?)

In knowledge-based attacks, the bad guy uses non-public knowledge gained in the course of his or her employment. This may be the identity of valuable targets — i.e., which machine has the master database? — details of how systems work; insider terminology or names of employees for use in social engineering attacks; even passwords.

Defenses here depend on what type of knowledge is being exploited. As always, log files help. An intrusion detection system (IDS) is one useful approach, though certain insiders will know what the system is looking for, what the action thresholds are, where honeypots are located, etc. In some environments, compartmentalization of information can help, though that can have a deleterious effect on productivity.

Ideally, a system is secure no matter how much an enemy knows. This principle — that one should not rely on security through obscurity — was set forth by Kerckhoff in 1883 in his La Cryptographie Militaire: "Il faut qu’il n’exige pas le secret, et qu’il puisse sans inconvénient tomber entre les mains de l’ennemi." (Roughly, "the system must not require secrecy and can fall into enemy hands without causing inconvenience.") Keeping certain information secret is a perfectly valid first line of defense, but it shouldn’t be the only one.

The third form of insider attack is based on privileged access. In this case, the attacker has already passed some of the defenses, such as firewalls. The failure here can be one of two different types. First, the outside-facing defense may be the only layer. In all but the smallest organizations, this is wrong. There is no reason why all employees should have all possible access privileges. In the second case, the rogue employee can use his or her access to exploit other security failings, such as buggy code. (I noted in 1994 that the primary purpose of a firewall is to keep bad guys away from buggy code.) Defense is depth is a good idea; the failure here of one layer shows the benefit of the others.

Privileged access attacks are the most amenable to technical solutions. Certainly, intrusion detection software is a useful tool here, though its primary output — that something bad has happened — is useful whether the attack came from inside or outside. We can also strengthen access control rules to limit access to only those people or programs who need it. Often, of course, the underlying system doesn’t support such fine-grained access control. For example, in one common configuration of the PHP web scripting language, it is impossible to secure data files used by one PHP application from any other PHP application on the same web server — and that includes user-written PHP scripts if your web server permits those. This isn’t much of an issue for large companies, who can use dedicated servers for each application; it is a problem for smaller organizations.

It is important to realize that insider attacks are a real threat. The CIA had Aldrich Ames and the FBI had Robert Hanssen. A recent survey (by, admittedly, a party who stands to benefit) suggests that many companies believe they are being infiltrated by organized crime. Another report says that 89% of fraud (note: this is fraud in general, not computer crime) is committed by insiders; worse yet, 60% of fraudsters are members of senior management or board members.

It is clear that there is no one solution to insider threats. Business process is a lot of the answer. Background checks, especially in the national security arena, are another. Computer scientists have their own role to play, both on their own and by supporting the business process.