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Insider threats are incredibly difficult to detect and protect against, yet they are amongst the most devastating attacks victims can suffer. Trusted insiders can be anyone with high-level access to systems or information, since this level of privilege is necessary for them to do their job; yet they misuse that privilege and undertake harmful actions against the organisation.
Let’s look at some of the issues organisations face in trying to protect against insider attacks, along with some of the ways you can build cyber resilience and detective controls to help combat this complicated area of cyber defence.
Privileged access refers to the permissions and system rights provided to network, operating system and application administrators to allow them to fully manage them. The range of activities required to keep ICT systems functioning and ensure end-users get the service they expect includes patching and maintaining servers, configuring networking devices (firewalls, routers and wireless access points), and loading or updating software on user devices. Each of these activities requires the administrator to dig into the guts of the systems, bypassing the security controls used to keep malicious or inquisitive users from causing harm. Consequently, administrators have the most powerful accounts within the infrastructure and if they turn against the organisation, all bets are off.
If an administrator turns malicious, the following attacks are trivial to launch:
If you can stop an attack from being possible in the first place, then it’s always worth considering preventative controls before you look at other ways of reducing the risks related to insider threats. The Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) and Australian Cyber Security Centre (ACSC) list five key preventative control areas that can be used to build layers of defences against malicious administrators, as follows:
Prevention is without doubt the best course of action, but it’s not always possible to fully prevent a malicious insider administrator from doing things that would compromise the business, so the last control to look at is the one that is often the least well understood or implemented: logging and auditing.
Automated generation, collection and analysis of security and administrative related events from workstations, servers, network devices and jump boxes will enable detection of compromises and attempted compromises. This will enable organisations to respond more quickly, reducing the implications of a compromise.
Australian Cyber Security Centre, 2019
Auditing has always been the failsafe control within security architectures and it’s an essential control when it comes to protecting against attacks from trusted insiders. There are two aspects of log collection and analysis that should be considered to ensure you have the best possible chance of detecting and responding to an insider attack:
In both cases, organisations typically turn to their Security Operations Centre (SOC) to develop a comprehensive auditing function, capable of detecting and responding to ongoing cyber-attacks. Designing this long-term audit collection and analysis solution requires the means to centralise and normalise the data so that sense can be made from the myriad of data reported from network systems, operating systems and applications. Due to the vast amount of data being produced by modern ICT systems, a special tool known as a Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) system is used to retain all this useful security telemetry. The SIEM allows auditors and security managers to dig through the logs for interesting trends and investigate specific activities relating to a breach or suspected attack, while preserving the original data in a way that makes it admissible in court as digital forensic evidence.
The more proactive aspect of using a SIEM to protect against insider threats is to build special rules that define how administrators are supposed to operate on your network and interact with your data, then correlate logs across all the devices users interact with and report unusual activity to the SOC for investigation. This allows the SOC to sit outside of the normal administration team, so they can monitor and baseline activity so they can detect behaviour that looks abnormal or suspicious.
To build this kind of logging and auditing capability, the technology you select needs to be able to ingest vast amounts of data and build a picture of what normal behaviour looks like, even for administrators. Most next-generation SIEM platforms have built-in behaviour analytics to do exactly that.
To find out more about next generation SIEM technology, download the guide.
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