According to the second annual SANS survey on the security of the
financial services sector, the number one threat companies are concerned
about doesn’t relate to nation-states, organised criminal gangs or ‘APTs’.
Rather the main worry revolves around insider threats –
but what exactly are insider threat indicators and what can be
done around insider threat detection and response?
A NEW OLD PROBLEM
The discussion around insider threat detection has increased recently in the financial
sector and in other areas as well. Part of this may be attributed to the spotlight Edward
Snowden shone on how much damage an employee can cause to an organisation -
even one as secretive as the NSA.
But insider threats are nothing new. During the height of the cold war, many spies
defected to opposing sides, taking with them national secrets and expertise right from
under the noses of their spy bosses. As a result, many counter techniques were developed
and deployed to keep an eye on insiders with valuable knowledge or skills to prevent
would-be defectors to make an escape or pass over information.
WHAT ARE INDICATORS OF
AN INSIDER THREAT?
When it comes to trading state secrets, insider threat detection is relatively
straightforward. But in today’s environments, the definitions start to blur somewhat.
We can define an insider as an individual with legitimate access within the
corporate perimeter - be it physical or virtual. This would include permanent
& temporary employees, 3rd party contractors as well as 3rd party support
companies and outsourced service providers.
Typically, a threat is defined as something or someone exploiting a vulnerability
in a target. In the case of insider threat detection, this can be reframed as someone
abusing their trust.
Therefore, we can summarize the insider threat as someone who misuses
the legitimate access granted to them for the purposes of self-interest that could
potentially harm the organization.
A QUESTION OF INTENT
Unfortunately, whenever humans are involved,
no case is so straightforward
...particularly where the malicious behaviour emanates from within the circle of trust.
Differentiating malicious insider behaviour from user error, or even legitimate
activity can be a challenge.
For example, a user is seen to download a number of files onto their personal device.
It could be they are about to tender their resignation and want to take some information
with them to their next job. Alternatively, it could be a hard-working and loyal employee
wanting to catch up with some work over the weekend. Or worse still, it could be that
the users account has been compromised and is being under the control of an attacker
masquerading as an insider.
With this in mind, we can break down
insiders into three broad categories:
• Non-malicious insider
• Malicious insider
• Compromised insider
Non-malicious insiders are those users that
perform actions, which have no ill intent, but can
nevertheless cause harm to an organisation.
Such actions could include user error, such as
running commands against a production environment
believing it is development or losing a company
laptop. It can also cover users who are trying to fulfill
their job by using non-approved tools. Shadow
IT users fall into this scope, where users procure
or use a cloud application such as a file-sharing
app to increase productivity, but inadvertently
expose the company to threats.
Malicious users are aware of their actions and the negative
implications on the organisation, yet still pursue that course of action.
This grouping includes a broad set of users.
Users which are leaving the organisation may harvest information
they believe would be of use to them in future jobs. While they are often
aware their actions are in violation of company policy, actions are
often justified with a sense of entitlement.
This category also includes users that are disgruntled for one reason
or another and seek to vent by causing as much disruption or damage to
company assets. Activists or employees who feel whistleblower processes
are insufficient will also react in a similar manner.
At the highest level of this category, employees are engaged in corporate
espionage. Providing intellectual property or other sensitive information to
competitors, criminal gangs or nation-state sponsored actors.
The final oft-overlooked category is that of
compromised insiders. Typically this is where
credentials have been guessed or captured
as part of a targeted attack. Although the actor
behind the account is not an employee -
the use of legitimate credentials would show
up as if it were an employee.
These factors combined can be represented in the following
matrix where intent is measured against harm.
The Insider Risk Matrix
For example, a company may deem that the risk of shadow IT, i.e. users procuring their
own SaaS applications within which they could upload sensitive company data that could
be accessed by non-authorised persons, or the SaaS provider could be breached.
In this case, the intent would be non-malicious in that the user was trying to perform
their job, yet the consequences could be significant.
Other insider threat indicators could be plotted in the same way to visualise which
threats are more severe overall by how far they are positioned up and to the right.
From a risk perspective, this alone won’t tell the full story as we are still missing
the likelihood. The likelihood can be represented by the size of the bubble on the
chart as depicted.
(Clicking on Spearphising)
The size of the bubbles (likelihood) help visualise that whereas espionage
can have the biggest impact and is undertaken with the most malicious intent,
the likelihood of it occurring is potentially less than that of a disgruntled
employee or even shadow IT proliferating within the enterprise.
User error encompasses many activities – all of which are non-malicious in
nature, however the harm caused could range from negligible such as an account
lockout through to severe by allowing an attacker a foothold inside the network
by clicking on a phishing link.
DETECTING INSIDER THREATS
Perimeter and preventative controls are largely ineffective in insider threat detection
and response, as by their very nature these are threats from within.
As a result, different techniques should be deployed to address each type of specific
threat based upon the insider threat indicators. Like many security controls, the concept
of defense in depth can be applied whereby a collection of procedural, user and technical
controls can be applied to detect suspicious insider activity, as depicted in the following
User Awareness & Education
Whistleblowing & Reporting Channels
Outbound Traffic Analysis Login patterns
Threat Intelligence Eastwest Traffic Analysis
Heuristics Algorithms Endpoint Activily Analytics
Access Deviation from Past or Peer Group File Access Patterns
Sentiment Analysis Social Media Tracking Machine Learning
Procedural & User Controls
PROCEDURAL & USER CONTROLS
Procedural and user controls are important to get management support and ensure
policies implemented are acceptable from a legal as well as cultural perspective.
Privacy is a discussion topic that comes up frequently and having transparency in how
a company uses data it collects about its employees is required in retaining trust. It also
provides a framework whereby aggrieved employees can escalate issues without the need
to resorting to conducting harmful acts against the company.
Finally, it also raises awareness so that employees can potentially detect and alert
The technical controls are an area which has seen a lot of development in recent years.
This primarily focuses on analytical techniques to identify suspicious user activity. Primarily
these will baseline user activity against its own past actions in addition to base lining against
peer activity to identify outliers. The baselines can be set against logins (times / locations),
file or system access, network traffic or even endpoint activity amongst others.
Threat intelligence can also be a valuable asset in understanding whether outbound traffic
is communicating with known command and control or other suspicious transfers.
In addition to these techniques, traditional technologies can also be utilized as insider threat
detection tools that help identify suspicious activity that may point towards a rogue insider.
Endpoint or network DLP (data loss prevention) tools can monitor where excessive files are being
exfiltrated out of the organisation. SIEM rules can also be tuned to alert on certain events that
are indicative of malicious insider activity.
Alongside threat intelligence, a number of newer approaches are being
developed which can directly or indirectly assist in finding insiders. Social media
channels play an ever-increasing role in both legitimate and not so legitimate
communications. Having the ability to monitor these channels, particularly where
enhanced by specific threat intelligence, greatly increases chances of isolating
activity on these typically out-of-band channels.
Sentiment analysis is another insider threat detection tool in the arsenal that is
garnering more interest. It seeks to identify where an employee may be disgruntled
or activist-tendencies which are contrary to the business values.
One of the challenges with any form of detection technology is having adequate skills
and resources to investigate and respond to alerts. For this reason, some technologies and
businesses are moving to more of a reporting framework for insider threat detection as
opposed to raising alerts.
With reports, a broader picture is painted around a user and their activity, thus allowing
investigations to be conducted based on richer context versus merely a one-off alert.
Such mechanisms could include a risk-score against each user based on a number of factors
such as grade, access to information, length of service, recent appraisal and so on.
Whichever method is adopted, it will still require manual effort to investigate
and validate any suspicions of wrongful behaviour.
BATTLE OF ATTRITION
While many new techniques have been developed and are continually being developed for
insider threat detection and response – dealing with humans, particularly trusted employees,
requires a different strategy and approach than dealing with malware.
Whereas any suspicious email or file can be relatively easily quarantined or blocked until proven
otherwise – employees cannot be suspended or fired based on a couple of indicators or mere
suspicion. Also, bear in mind that a large portion of suspicious activity can take place outside the
realm of IT systems. This means that companies will need to work with HR and legal departments
in advance to determine the best strategy to investigate suspicious activity and how to interact
with suspected employees.
It becomes a matter of balancing risk – a company may be able to recover a lot easier
from an ex-employee taking a copy of the customer database than from an unfair dismissal
lawsuit. In the financial sector especially, the stakes are high all around.
AlienVault Unified Security Management
(USM) delivers essential Insider Threat
Detection and Management capabilities:
• Network Intrusion Detection System (NIDS)
• Network flow analysis
• Network protocol analysis & packet capture
Privilege Escalation Detection
• Host Intrusion Detection System (HIDS)
• File Integrity Monitoring (FIM)
• Detect unauthorized user access attempts
• Security Information and Event Management (SIEM)
• Detect communications with malicious hosts
• Centralized dashboard that prioritizes threats the way you want to see them
Next Steps: Play, share, enjoy!
• Learn more about AlienVault USM
• Watch our 3-minute overview video
• Start detecting threats today with a free 30-day trial
• Join the Open Threat Exchange