January 18, 2011, 1:41 PM — It's a CIO's worst nightmare: You get a call from the Business Software Alliance (BSA), saying that some of the Microsoft software your company uses might be pirated.
You investigate and find that not only is your software illegal, it was sold to you by a company secretly owned and operated by none other than your own IT systems administrator, a trusted employee for seven years. When you start digging into the admin's activities, you find a for-pay porn Web site he's been running on one of your corporate servers. Then you find that he's downloaded 400 customer credit card numbers from your e-commerce server.
And here's the worst part: He's the only one with the administrative passwords.
Think it can't happen? It did, according to a security consultant who was called in to help the victim, a $250 million retailer in Pennsylvania. You never heard about it because the company kept it quiet.
Despite the occasional headlines about IT folks gone rogue (remember Terry Childs, the network administrator who held the city of San Francisco's network hostage?), most companies sweep such situations under the rug as quickly and as quietly as possible.
An annual survey by CSO magazine, the U.S. Secret Service and CERT (a program of the Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie Mellon University) routinely finds that three quarters of companies that are victimized by insiders handle the matter internally, says Dawn Cappelli, technical manager of CERT's threat and incident management team. "So we know that [what's made public] is only the tip of the iceberg," she says.
By keeping things quiet, however, victimized companies deny others the opportunity to learn from their experiences. CERT has tried to fill that void. It has studied insider threats since 2001, collecting information on more than 400 cases. In its most recent report, 2009's "Common Sense Guide to Prevention and Detection of Insider Threats" (download PDF), which analyzes more than 250 cases, CERT identifies some of the most common mistakes companies make: inadequate vetting during the hiring process, inadequate oversight and monitoring of access privileges and overlooking of red flags in behavior.