Survey: Abuse of Network Access Privileges Is Rampant

Pavel Ignatov/

Agencies are more concerned about insiders leaking citizens’ and partner organizations’ information than their own business data.

Agencies are more concerned about insiders leaking citizens’ and partner organizations’ information than their own general business information, according to a new survey by the Ponemon Institute. Meanwhile, the commercial sector cares more about inappropriate disclosures of business data than customer data.

Ponemon surveyed 693 industry and government information technology personnel who had high-level access to internal networks. 

Overall, 59 percent, the majority of whom worked in industry, said their business information is most at risk without the right protections. Only 49 percent said client information is most in jeopardy.

Among participants employed at state, local and federal agencies, 54 percent said customer information is the most vulnerable type of information they need to protect. Roughly 42 percent of those government personnel indicated their own business information is most susceptible to leaks.

Commercial firms “probably feel it’s kind of more important that they need to protect their stuff versus customers,” said Michael Crouse, director of insider threat strategies for Raytheon Company, which commissioned Ponemon to conduct the study. 

Whereas, "the government, which kind of sees their customers’ information as what they have to protect," feels that client data is most unprotected, he said. "It’s kind of an interesting inversion."

Across the board, most (88 percent) of participants recognized that the abuse of IT access privileges is a cause for alarm. "But less than half that number, around 44 percent in the government, feel that they have a dedicated budget for investing in these technologies, investing in processes and procedures, to reduce the threat of the insider," Crouse said. 

Determining what to invest in is part of the challenge. Many analysts say more resources must be devoted to checking up on employees' behaviors, rather than just network security.  

About 74 percent of the government officials surveyed said personnel with high user privileges feel they are empowered to access all the information they can view, Crouse said. 

"Just because you are looking for information or accessing information, that in itself isn’t a violation for the most part," he said. "If you’re actually taking that information, or using that information, or sending that information, whether you do it deliberately or maliciously, that is a big problem."

Changes in employee feelings and perceptions can turn natural nosiness into malice.

Leaders need to have auditing mechanisms in place to ensure an employee's "sense of empowerment won’t do damage to the organization," Crouse said.

Technology that analyzes networks and machines for abnormal transfers isn't enough, many security specialists say.

Since 2010, when then Pfc. Bradley Manning allegedly shared classified intelligence with anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks, the Pentagon has spent millions of dollars on data loss prevention software to protect systems against breaches from within. 

That didn't stop ex-National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden from allegedly leaking secrets about the Defense agency's spying operations.

Working from an office in Hawaii, he used login credentials and passwords that colleagues unwittingly provided him to access some of the material he divulged to the media, according to Reuters

Some former U.S. national security IT officials say the government doesn't need to start from scratch on a behavior surveillance system to stop rogue employees.

"It’s not new technology -- it’s a matter of making it more encompassing, making it more scalable, making it faster” at searching for signs of changes in conduct, Dale Meyerrose, the first chief information officer of the intelligence community under the Director of National Intelligence, told Nextgov. "A lot of it is the same infrastructure, the same sensors, the same networking technology. You just put in the software code new rules [detailing which databases to scour], new processes, new applications," he said.

(Image via Pavel Ignatov/