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September 2001 Cyber Security

Darren Smith, Managing Editor
Darren Smith, Managing Editor

While most IT security threats are perceived to be entirely external, mounting evidence shows that malcontented or misguided employees actually pose the more immediate commercial threat. John Cheney, Managing Director of managed security services company, Activis, recently discussed with Hi-Tech Security Solutions the nature of the threat and the countermeasures available to keep malcontents at bay.

The notion that most breaches of security are external is increasingly being overturned as research shows that network managers need to apply more stringent security within the firewall. A survey from Activis, in conjunction with sister company, Integralis, illustrated the scale of the problem when it analysed 146 companies in March this year. Of the known security breaches, it determined that a significant 81% of threats were internal with an extra 13% originating from ex-employees; just 6% of the breaches were pinned on external hackers.

Where are the threats?

Whereas most security policies balance the need for openness with restricted access to important business information, internal breaches typically arise where employees are not actively prevented from gaining unauthorised access to sensitive parts of a company's management information system.

Says Cheney, "Disgruntled staff, contractors and staff with insufficient knowledge of the damage that could be inflicted pose a threat that is often overlooked by network managers. For example, simple passwords or passcodes unwittingly provided to onsite contractors or over the phone can open up many opportunities for the serious hacker or malcontented employee. Often encountering lax perimeter security, hackers can easily penetrate soft security environments and access commercially sensitive data at will."

Inappropriate use of the Internet is also deemed a threat as staff spending vast amounts of time surfing for bargains, downloading offensive material and using e-mail to send inappropriate material could equally compromise a business systems' performance. Although such usage may not directly lead to major security problems, staff indulgences can quickly lead to overloading network bandwidth and subsequently lowering performance, at best, and bringing down the network entirely, at worst.

Adds Cheney, "Occupational spam is another area of Internet misuse but of no less concern, as is the very real possibility of prosecutions of business under the rules of vicarious liability. This means that employers are vicariously liable for the information that their employees might send via e-mail or download from the Internet. To prevent potential lawsuits thus requires adequate policy and training."

While external and geographically remote attacks from hardcore hackers who vandalise websites, initiate denial of service attacks and commit actual theft and destruction of data (or just tampering with information) may appear less frequent, these can and do typically undermine company security which could lead to commercial ruin. And these are on the increase.

Monitoring is essential

Arguably, many network managers posses neither the time or specialised skill-set - but mostly the time - to run and administer 24x7 security monitoring. Establishing a firewall and running the security must be viewed as a process and not an event. Both time and effort must be applied to ensure the correct level of security is introduced and continually maintained.

"Equally pressing is the need for the problem to be addressed by management," says Cheney. "Precisely because the countermeasures needed involve computer user policy and contract enforcement, internal surveillance needed requires both management action and technical competency."

Keeping risks at bay

Although technical safeguards are needed in the first instance, often involving regular and thorough system back-ups; reviewing user access and privileges; introducing access control systems and policing password policies, the overwhelming requirement is management recognition of the issue - before it becomes a problem.

The HR issue of security compliance can and should also supplement any technical safeguards as well motivated staff are less likely to transgress either intentionally or unintentionally.

Says Cheney, "Prevention is, in this case, not just better than the cure but vitally important to a company's IT system well-being. Management not only needs to appreciate that security barriers are needed but that the investment required may actually stretch their resources.

"Taking network managers away from running an enterprise network to police a company's security policy will not necessarily be practical or desirable. Most security needs to be completely 24x7 and, while crucial to the business, the justification of diverting network managers to guard against attacks is not an easy one. The time taken to monitor both sides of firewall and implement software patches, etc requires continual maintenance and monitoring. And unless security is kept up-to-date it is unlikely that any firewall will keep pace with the next security breach, be it virus or hacker."

Concludes Cheney, "Companies need to realise that security is not just about technology. In fact it is a three stage virtuous circle comprising policy, management and technology. Policy decides how the security is to be managed, what is allowed or acceptable and might include an employee Internet usage policy; the technology should be best of breed and the management needs to ensure everything is up-to-date in order to assess all risks all the time."

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