Look out, sysadmins - HOT FOREIGN SPIES are targeting you

Agents are greasing up IT bods to access all areas, warns MI5

Anna Chapman, one-time Russian spy turned model

MI5 has warned that foreign spy agencies are targeting IT workers within big organisations as a means of gaining privileged access to sensitive data.

The security service's warning about spy-infiltration tactics is a bid to encourage corporations to bolster their defences against such attacks, the FT (via the Daily Mail) reports.

While grooming internal sources with access to highly sensitive information used to take years in the time of the Cold War spymasters, it now takes much less time - basically however long it takes the new recruit to get privileged access to company info... that's if they don't have it already.

Paul Ayers, VP EMEA at enterprise data security firm Vormetric, commented: “This warning confirms something that we’ve been saying for a while now – that the abuse of privileged credentials is the next frontier for cyber crime against enterprises."

Ayers suggested a wide range of workers beyond the most obvious target of sysadmins in the defence and aerospace industries might be targeted.

“Part of the complexity stems from the changing nature and definition of a ‘privileged user’. What was once a traditional insider with legitimate access rights has now become almost anybody with appropriate credentials to view and modify data across corporate networks – from contractors to system engineers to network maintenance workers," Ayers explained.

"In addition, as cyber criminals become more sophisticated and determined, a further threat comes from privileged user accounts being compromised as these users become increasingly lucrative targets.

"As the MI5 warning reminds us, once hijacked, these credentials can be used as a way for outside hackers to infiltrate corporate networks," he added.

The concept of Anna Chapman types flirting with the likes of Moss from the IT Crowd in order to gain access to sensitive information sounds absurd – but there again, recent history has taught us that spies get up to all sorts of weird shenanigans. If you look hard - and we mean REALLY hard - there are perhaps precedents for this sort of thing; two examples straight off the top of our heads being in North Korea and in China.

So long and thanks for all the phish

However, the El RegHome Guard desk still reckons that phishing emails, custom malware and watering-hole attacks are a far more plausible tactic rather than the spy-grooming tactics mentioned by MI5.

Mix in a bit of social engineering – such as infecting the machine of a lowly worker and messing with their mouse in the knowledge that they are bound to phone up IT support – and you potentially have sysadmins being exposed to attacks, or at least reconnaissance. You can imagine that quite a lot of spying with computers gets done without leaving the office. Either way you look at it, any worker – not just those in the IT department – could become the target of a stepping stone-style attack.

Ross Brewer, vice president and managing director for international markets at security dashboard firm LogRhythm, added: “By traditionally focusing on external hackers, businesses have often ended up overlooking the significant security threat posed by those on the inside. Used to nameless, faceless perpetrators, it’s understandably more difficult to accept that the culprit may be sat right next to them.”

“However, continuing to ignore this could now lead to catastrophic consequences,” he warned. “Indeed, employees of all levels – from the CEO all the way down to the junior IT assistant – are in the frame and could potentially expose data that threatens not just the company, but the entire nation’s secrets." ®

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