Beware: Privileged Insiders Will Give Up the Crown Jewels

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Each and every day, the news is full of stories re-counting the substantial, and often overwhelming, effects that today’s technology has on the way people live and work. Terms such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT) are fast becoming everyday verbiage, and plans for their deployment are landing high on the agenda of business leaders – whether they like it or not.

Headlines warning of cyber-attacks and data breaches are just as common. Attackers are everywhere: on the outside are hackers, organized criminal groups and nation states, whose capabilities and ruthlessness grow by the day; on the inside are employees and contractors, causing incidents either maliciously or by accident.

Business leaders are left feeling uncertain about the way forward. The dilemma is often unambiguous: should they rush to adopt new technology and risk major fallout if things go wrong, or wait and potentially lose ground to competitors?

Determining your mission-critical information assets

For centuries, organizations have been acquiring, producing, leasing, licensing and selling assets. Accounted for in financial statements, these assets represent an organization’s wealth and financial stability. This makes them vulnerable to theft and fraud. As a priority organizations should focus on those assets that are of the highest value and risk – commonly referred to by business leaders as the “crown jewels”.

Assets such as property, plant and equipment are tangible whereas information is an intangible asset. There are two types of intangible assets:

  • Legal – such as trade secrets, copyrights and customer lists
  • Competitive – such as company culture, collaboration activities and customer relationships

Both types are essential drivers of competitive advantage and shareholder value today. It’s common to view the value or importance of information by using a simple classification chart. However, mission-critical information assets represent only the very tip of the highest layer.

Information of high business value or impact could still register as “high” or “critical” but not necessarily be designated as mission-critical. Traditional risk assessment approaches would not identify this information separately, so mission-critical information assets typically require a different approach to identification.

Recent Information Security Forum (ISF) research uncovered two main factors that typically influence whether or not an information asset is classed as a crown jewel:

  • Its value to the organization
  • The potential business impact if compromised

At the ISF, we refer to information assets with a high value and business impact rating as “mission-critical information assets”. Examples of mission-critical information assets include details of:

  • Information that supports overall business operations, e.g., board papers, M&A or upcoming redundancy plans
  • Material relating to possible and planned future products and services, e.g., formulas for new drugs, engineering specifications or upcoming exploration locations
  • Information relating to promoting and selling an organization’s products and services, e.g., noncompetition agreements, competitive analysis or an upcoming marketing campaign.

When identifying mission-critical information assets, organizations should take into account the extent to which:

  • The information asset contributes to, or supports, business value (e.g., business revenue; competitive advantage; operational effectiveness; and legal, regulatory or contractual compliance)
  • The business could be impacted in the event of the confidentiality, integrity or availability of the information asset being compromised, considering any financial, operational, legal/ regulatory compliance, reputational, or health and safety implications.

Insiders coerced into giving up the crown jewels

Privileged insiders, or individuals with access to an organization’s crown jewels, are some of the most dangerous people within an organization. They are often a diverse and unconnected group within the organization, extending beyond senior business managers, and by proxy, their personal assistants. Those with access to the crown jewels can also include people in the roles of systems administrator, infrastructure architect and network support engineer, as well as specific external contractors.

In the coming years, new attacks will impact both business reputation and shareholder value, and cyber risk exists in every aspect of the enterprise. Even in the cybercrime era, the age-old threat of violence still spreads fear. To achieve greater gains, well-funded criminal groups will combine their substantial global reach and digital expertise with intimidation or savagery to threaten privileged insiders into giving up mission-critical information assets such as financial details, intellectual property (IP) and strategic plans.

An organization that loses any of their crown jewels to attackers will be impacted by heavy financial losses and brand damage when planned products are copied and released earlier by competitors. Targeted organizations that cannot guarantee the safety of their highly skilled privileged insiders may find recruitment and retention increasingly difficult.

Cyber-criminals’ motivation

The growing value of information, combined with the ability of organized criminal groups to profit from its theft, has led to a dramatic rise in cyber-crime rates: Hong Kong saw a 455% increase in such incidents between 2009 and 2015, while in Brazil, the number rose by 274% between 2014 and 2015 alone. This disturbing trend can be expected to continue into 2019 as criminals target organizational information assets, especially those that are mission-critical.

An approach frequently employed by cyber criminals to steal information is to exploit privileged credentials: for example, weak, default or stolen passwords enabled 63% of data breaches in 2015. In the past, by recruiting even more people with the skills to steal credentials, organized criminal groups have realized a marked improvement in profits from cyber-crime. Nevertheless, there is another way to gain access to such credentials: directly from the people themselves, each of whom becomes a physical target.

The tactic of targeting specific individuals has already been successful in other lucrative areas of criminal activity. Individuals to target can be identified through sources such as LinkedIn or Facebook. Coercion can then take place in either a virtual or physical environment. For example, a technique of 'sextortion' (i.e. manipulating the victim into a morally compromising situation and recording the evidence to use as leverage) can be adapted to blackmail insiders into handing over an organization’s crown jewels.

In extreme cases, criminals may also resort to violence, or the threat of violence against a privileged insider, including holding the family captive until the crown jewels have been compromised, a tactic which has been used successfully during armed robberies. Criminal gangs will see merit in coercing privileged insiders into providing direct access to an organization’s systems as they will be able to:

  • Significantly reduce the level of cyber expertise they require: replacing that expertise with 'muscle'
  • Continue to enjoy access to one or more individuals who have already 'assisted' the gangs and can easily be persuaded to do so again
  • Simplify the process of stealing mission-critical information assets by operating at 'arm’s length'.

Moving forward, merciless criminal groups, rogue competitors and nation states will directly target mission-critical information assets, designated as such by their value to the organization and the business impact if compromised. Consequently, an organization should take steps to identify and record these assets. The individuals with access to, or responsibility for, the management and protection of these assets should also be identified on that record. At the same time, procedures can be put in place for individuals to report any coercion or threat, and arrangements made for anyone affected to receive appropriate protection.

Be Prepared

As dangers accelerate, organizations must fully commit to disciplined and practical approaches to managing the major changes ahead. Employees at every level of the organization will need to be involved, including board members and managers in non-technical roles.

A few recommendations and tips include:

  • Identify the organization’s mission-critical information assets, and the individuals who own and access them.
  • Invest in special measures to protect individuals with privileged access (e.g. instruction in physical security precautions; exposure to social engineering methods).
  • Implement mechanisms to protect the organization against the insider threat (e.g. screening prospective employees; embedding appropriate clauses in employment contracts).
  • Adopt a 'trust-but-verify' approach to privileged insiders (e.g. foster a culture of trust, while verifying and monitoring appropriate system access).

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