Employers Need Insider Threat Detection Despite Privacy Risks, Consultants Say

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By Chris Marr

March 25 — The use of big data analytics and software that assists in monitoring employees as a means of identifying potential insider threats in the workplace was the subject of a session at a recent security industry conference in Atlanta.

Following high-profile security breaches, such as the disclosure of National Security Agency information by Edward Snowden, a former employee of a contractor to the NSA, corporations and government agencies have been more aware of the various threats posed by insiders, Randy Trzeciak, technical lead on the insider threat research team at Carnegie Mellon University's Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) Software Engineering Institute, said March 24 at the session.

“There is a groundswell of movement toward formalization of protection against these threats from the inside” within the last three to five years, Trzeciak said at the Information Security Media Group's Atlanta Fraud Summit.

He pointed to President Barack Obama's October 2011 executive order (No. 13587) that instructed federal agencies that maintain or access classified databases to develop a formal insider threat detection and prevention program. Similar federal rules are expected to be finalized in 2016 applying to federal contractors, he said.

But employers should consistently enforce a set of clearly stated policies to avoid the privacy-related pitfalls of an insider threat detection and prevention program, a researcher and consultant in the field told Bloomberg BNA March 24 on the sidelines of the fraud conference.

‘High Risk, High Reward.’

The types of monitoring that a company chooses and what it does with the data can create privacy risks to employees, but the possible benefits of preventing an incident of fraud, intellectual property theft or even workplace violence are enormous, Margaret “Peggy” Eisenhauer, founder of the Atlanta-based consulting firm Privacy & Information Management Services, told Bloomberg BNA March 25 after the conference.

“It is one of those analytics programs we view as being high risk but also high reward,” Eisenhauer, who is a member of the advisory board for Bloomberg BNA's Privacy & Security Law Report, said.

Having strong internal controls for the program is important, she said. Controlling who can see and review the monitoring data and designing a clear protocol for how those people should respond to suspicious activity are crucial, Eisenhauer said.

Trzeciak, in his comments to Bloomberg BNA, agreed that privacy concerns can arise, especially when an organization isn't consistent in its monitoring procedures.

For example, a company might wish to monitor more closely an employee who has received a negative performance review or one who is scheduled to leave the company within the next two weeks, he said. A company's legal counsel might be comfortable with these policies, but not if certain well-trusted employees are exempt from the enhanced monitoring while others are subject to it, he said.

“Having a consistently enforced policy is key,” Trzeciak said.

Best Practices 

CERT, a federally funded research center, produces an annual best practices guide to advise corporations on how to develop their own insider threat programs, which rely heavily on monitoring an employee's activity on the company network but can also extend to techniques such as reviewing an employee's social media posts or credit reports, Trzeciak said.

The policies that CERT recommends include a systematic logging, monitoring and auditing of employee network activity; exercising vigilance toward social media use; blocking unauthorized e-mailing or uploading of company data outside the network; and developing a comprehensive employee termination procedure, he said.

Network monitoring programs can track data as seemingly mundane as how many pages a particular employee prints on an average day, Trzeciak said. If that number suddenly jumps from an average of 10 to a total of 1,000 on the day before the employee is scheduled to travel out of the country, then that might be a red flag of potential intellectual property theft, he said.

“Most of the software tends to be anomaly-detection software,” he said. “Something's leaving that shouldn't leave. Something's changing that shouldn't change.”

Need For Transparency

In detecting insider threats, companies can benefit from looking into areas of employees' lives that might be deemed personal, such as what kinds of comments they are posting on Facebook or Twitter, or whether their credit reports indicate financial distress that might be a motive for employee theft, Eisenhauer said.

“Or, is an employee living well beyond his or her means? That might be a flag I want to look at,” she added.

While important to helping companies prevent damaging incidents, these types of monitoring also can lead to negative consequences for employees if they are flagged for some suspicious behavior when in fact they haven't broken the law or company policy.

“You need to be incredibly transparent with employees—this is what we do, this is why we do it, these are the rights you have and these are the potential consequences of certain behaviors,” Eisenhauer said.

Data analytics gurus sometimes operate in the mindset that they are striving for perfect knowledge of a given subject area, and that they only need to acquire the right data points to achieve it, she said. But in analyzing employees to detect insider threats, employers must stop short of this ideal and carefully consider which data points should be monitored and which ones shouldn't, Eisenhauer said.

“If you actually have perfect knowledge—omniscience—it is a privacy risk,” she said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Chris Marr in Atlanta at cmarr@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Donald G. Aplin at daplin@bna.com

The insider threat best practices guide from CERT is available at http://www.cert.org/insider-threat/best-practices/index.cfm.