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Thirst for revenge against the boss fuelled the majority of insider hacking attacks, according to a US government survey published this week.

The idea that a negative work-related event, such as a dismissal, triggered most insiders’ actions comes as no great surprise. But the details unearthed in a study of 49 hacking incidents against critical infrastructure targets in the US between 1996 and 2002 makes for an interesting read.

The report Insider Threat Study: Computer System Sabotage in Critical Infrastructure Sectors (PDF), by the US Secret Service and security clearing house US CERT, found that most perps planned their activities in advance but tended to resort to "unsophisticated methods for exploiting systemic vulnerabilities in applications, processes or procedures". The use of sophisticated hacking tools was rarer but not unknown. Viewed retrospectively, most attackers behaved abnormally in the workplace in the run up to an attack. One third of attackers had an arrest record, investigators discovered.

The majority of the insider attacks were only detected after systems malfunctioned. Financial losses were the norm though losses varied enormously by incident from a few dollars to millions of dollars in at least two examples. "The majority of insiders compromised computer accounts, created unauthorized backdoor accounts, or used shared accounts in their attacks," the report notes.

Scary stuff but the authors of the report have various suggestions about how security risks from aggrieved sys admins can be contained. "Insiders can be stopped, but stopping them is a complex problem. Insider attacks can only be prevented through a layered defence strategy consisting of policies, procedures, and technical controls. Therefore, management must pay close attention to many aspects of its organization, including its business policies and procedures, organizational culture, and technical environment," the report concludes.

A separate study involving both CERT and the US Secret Service published last year estimates insiders are responsible for 29 per cent of attacks. Respondents to the E-Crime Watch Survey 2004 identified current or former employees and contractors as the second greatest cyber security threat behind only external hackers. ®

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