Defense looks for ways to detect insiders stealing classified files

Program would expose anyone conducting network searches, probing file index systems and copying information back to a computer.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency kicked off on Wednesday a project that would give the Defense Department the ability to quickly detect and stop insiders intent on stealing information from military and government computer systems.

The agency said in its announcement of the initiative that it wants to "greatly increase the accuracy, rate and speed with which insider threats are detected and impede the ability of adversaries to operate undetected within government and military interest networks."

DARPA's Cyber Insider Threat program, called Cinder, comes just a month after the largest insider leak of classified documents in history to the website Wikileaks, which furnished the documents to The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel. An Army private first class has been charged with copying 76,000 documents from classified systems and giving them to Wikileaks.

While DARPA did not make any connection between the Wikileaks case and Cinder, it said it wants to develop ways to detect actions on military networks and systems that could indicate someone is trying to copy classified files.

Cinder would detect a Defense employee or service member who conducts a network search or probes file index systems, and then copies information to their computer. The private identified as the source of the Wikileaks documents allegedly engaged in all these actions and then burned the files to a compact disc. DARPA says it also wants to know if an insider stores files on a CD.

"I imagine that DARPA would be pursuing this even without the recent leak of thousands of classified files, but the leak was probably seen as validation of the threat," said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. "One would expect research and development along these lines to go forward."

He said countering insider threats presents a real challenge. "The insider is likely to be cognizant of security measures and to have a head start on evading them," Aftergood said. "And if security becomes too heavy-handed, everyone, not just the insider, will pay a price in performance.

"It's not clear if there is a simple, affordable and effective technological solution," he added. "I guess that's what DARPA wants to find out."