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Pentagon Data Leak Shows the Danger an Insider Threat Presents

U.S. officials confirmed last week that a member of the military photographed and uploaded more than 50 classified documents to a Discord server and other social media sites, again reminding us of the danger insider threats can present to any organization.

According to the Associated Press, a member of the U.S. Air National Guard was arrested last week in Massachusetts in connection with the leak. The leaked sensitive information purportedly covers a wide range of intelligence topics related to the Ukraine-Russia War and other topics.

Insider threats are a concern not just for the U.S. government, but for any organization. While the fear of being hit with a cyberattack and suffering a data breach is a paramount concern for security professionals, the fact remains that an organization’s people can cause the most significant amount of damage. After all, those inside know where the most critical data is stored, and which content can do the most damage if released.

Historically, insider threats come in two flavors.

The first is benign. An employee makes a mistake and releases sensitive data. This error could be due to being exploited by a phishing email incident or some other socially engineered attack, or the person might have sent an email to the wrong address, clicked the incorrect key, or mistakenly told someone confidential information.

The second variety is more insidious. An insider threat can be a disgruntled current or former employee, someone taking money from an outside source to reveal secrets, or even the janitorial staff or a repairperson who has access to where classified material is housed.

Countering the Insider Threat

Insider threats can be devilishly hard to counter, but the judicious use of human resources and technology can help.

An organization’s human resources staff can help by educating department managers to identify unhappy and disgruntled employees or employees who give off warning signs that they are dissatisfied and might do something dangerous. For example, these people may have strong political opinions, a strong dislike of their manager or function, or know that layoffs are looming, and they are likely to be let go.

Additionally, a person considering releasing or stealing data might leave some clues behind that can be tracked. This activity could include something as innocuous as querying a customer list or database more often than usual or maybe even for the first time. Also, such a person might attempt to copy, change, or download data. If the person does not have the proper privileges, the system could flag and deny the access, but this activity must be investigated when spotted.

Other tip-offs indicating malicious activity could include the person installing a remote desktop connection, start browsing shadier sites or going on the dark web or perhaps downloading exfiltration tools or blatant criminal/hacking tools.

Co-workers may also be able to sense unhappiness or detect changed behavior, so an organization should have a process or system in place to report odd behavior and the ability to communicate that concern.

Having a strong identity and access management program is a must. Robust identity systems can restrict access to vital systems and data to a limited and known number of users and systems. Restricting access reduces the risk by ensuring that those with access to the most sensitive systems and data can receive targeted and continual training covering all aspects of security risks the organization is subject to.

Using MDR and Threat Hunting to Find Insider Threats  

Trustwave’s recently introduced patent-pending Advanced Continual Threat Hunt (ACTH) is designed to spot anomalous behavior and is even more powerful when combined with a Managed Detection and Response solution.

ACTH is a Tactics, Techniques and Procedures-(TTPs) focused threat-hunting platform and methodology based on the MITRE ATT&CK framework. The solution allows the elite Trustwave SpiderLabs Threat Hunting team to conduct more higher-quality, human-led threat hunts per year to find indicators of behavior across Trustwave’s global client base and multiple Endpoint Detection and Response (EDR) tools. In addition, ACTH supports various Endpoint Detection and Response tools which gives Trustwave access to more queries that that can be used to find threats.

The improved threat hunt capability continuously scans a client’s environment searching for threat actors and can raise awareness of compromise before an attacker can exploit it by proactively discovering malicious activity and anomalous behavior.

In addition, a database protection and monitoring tool, such as Trustwave’s DbProtect, will also detect anomalies and flag suspicious activities or requests that violate policies. Depending on your policy, this can also alert you when an employee is querying the database at odd hours or during the weekend. Which leads to the fact that an organization has to know where its data is stored and who has access.

Finally, it’s a good idea to monitor VPN connections at unusual times, from unusual locations, and for unusual periods of time or connections that involve unusual copy of data. They may indicate attempts to exfiltrate data from the organization remotely or other malicious intent.