Employees still pose biggest security threat, survey finds

Almost 60 percent of government security experts say agency insiders who have access to sensitive information are the most likely cyber criminals.

Workers inside agencies pose the biggest threat to computer security, providing foreign governments and other perpetrators direct access to sensitive networks, according to results of a survey of security experts released on Tuesday.

Most of the 22 government security experts PacketMotion, a security vendor, surveyed pointed to employees as the greatest threat to steal sensitive information because failure to comply with policies combined with lax controls often provide easy access to data.

Results of the survey reflect "the reality that the [perpetrator] will hijack or use the credentials of internal users," said Jonathan Gohstand, vice president of marketing and product strategy at PacketMotion. The survey was conducted during the Black Hat USA 2010 conference in Las Vegas in July.

Fifty-nine percent of those surveyed said employees represent the biggest threat to the government's enterprise computing environment, and 14 percent pointed to administrators who have been given access to certain networks and files as threats as well. Eighteen percent said outsiders, including contractors, were the biggest security threat, while only 9 percent named hackers and cyber criminals.

Most government employees -- 77 percent -- said foreign government spies could be planted in their organizations to access computers to steal corporate information.

"Access controls get implemented in government, but rarely are permissions audited and updated effectively" to ensure individuals have access only to the resources they need to do their job, Gohstand said.

He noted that investment in edge solutions, which attempt to lock down perimeters such as firewalls and intrusion prevention equipment, do little to protect networks from an insider threat. Agencies should have in place strict access controls and monitoring procedures that flag network activities that appear out of the ordinary.

"Access controls are a great first step if you can implement them effectively, but it doesn't protect against abuse," Gohstand said. "The question has to be not only what rights does [an employee] need to have do his job, but also what does he do with those rights."