What security can learn from the $15M Sprint employee breach

Malicious insider activity is on the increase

Federal prosecutors this week charged nine former Sprint employees with fraud and aggravated identity theft after learning they had cloned customer cell phone numbers to make $15 million worth of calls. According to the complaint from federal prosecutors, the individuals who have been charged worked at Sprint stores in the Bronx, Bergen, N.J., and Tampa, Fla., and used company computers to get confidential information about thousands of customers. The data was used to create the so-called 'clone' cell phones. Of the $15 million worth of calls, a large percentage of them were international calls, said prosecutors.

According to Randall Trzeciak, Insider Threat Team Lead, Carnegie Mellon Software Engineering Institute CERT Program, malicious insider activity is on the increase. CERT has been tracking insider threat cases since 2001. According to the most recent annual 2010 CyberSecurity Watch Survey, research CERT releases with CSO Magazine, the most costly or damaging attacks an organization experiences are caused by insiders. The survey found 51 percent of respondents who experienced a cyber security event were victims of an insider attack. Motivations range from financial gain to anger among employees (See also: Security blunders 'dumber than dog snot')

"It's hard to know what employees are thinking," said Trzeciak. "In our analysis of fraud-related events, there is often some financial difficulty on part of individual involved. There are also cases of individuals who have some level of disgruntlement. There can be a supervisor issue, or maybe a negative workplace event, such as a demotion."

Amichai Shulman, CTO with web-security firm Imperva, said it is common for malicious insiders to become ensnared in a scheme after being approached by someone with connections to organized crime who stands to make a lot of money in the ruse and promises large financial gain to the employee.

"In this scam, low-level employees at Sprint sold customer names, cell phone numbers and ESNs (Electronic Serial Numbers) so that actual fraudsters could use these details to perform phone calls and charge them to the customers whose details were stolen," said Shulman. "I don't believe that many employees start working with an organization with an initial intent to steal data. Rather, they are usually approached by someone else who can use the data for nefarious purposes. So the real malicious person who is usually part of an organized criminal gang makes the big money, while the lower-level employee takes the blame when caught and is poorly rewarded compared to the risk involved."

Trzeciak said CERT counsels organizations to observe 16 best practices for preventing and detecting insider threats. Among them: An easy and sometimes anonymous way for employees to report suspicious behavior, and a examination of business processes that may make fraud easier for malicious insiders.

"If we can put controls in place in business processes that would not allow a person not to carry out a process from beginning to end, or that require certain kinds of approval along the way, that might go a long way to preventing insider fraud."

Read more about data protection in CSOonline's Data Protection section.

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