What can we really do about the insider threat?

The "insider" has been indicated as a the most severe security threat for decades. Almost every security study states that the insiders are among the highest risk in almost any organization. Employees, contractors, support engineers - they have straightforward access to the assets, they know the environment and they are in the best position to work around any security controls that are in place. Therefore it is understandable that the insider threat is consistently placed among the highest risks.

But what has the security industry really done to mitigate this threat? Firewall, VPN, IDS and cryptography is of no help here. 2-factor authentication also does not help. The insiders already have the access they need therefore securing such the access is not going to help. There is not much that the traditional information security can do about the insider threat. So, we have threat that is consistently rated among the top risks and we have nothing to do about it?

The heart of the problem is in the assets that we are trying to protect. The data are stored inside applications. Typically the data of all sensitivity levels are stored in the same application. Therefore network-based security techniques are almost powerless. Network security can usually control only whether a user has access to application or not. But it is almost impossible to discriminate the individual parts of the application which the user is allowed to access - let alone individual assets. Network perimeter is long gone. Therefore there is no longer even a place where to place network security devices as the data move between cloud applications and mobile devices. This is further complicated by the defense in depth approach. Significant part of the internal nework communication is encrypted. Therefore there is very little an Intrusion Detection System (IDS) can do because it simply does not see inside the encrypted stream. Network security is just not going to do it.

Can application security help? Enterprises usually have quite a strict requirements for application security. Each application has to have proper authentication, authorization, policies, RBAC, ... you name it. If we secure the application then we also secure the assets, right? No. Not really. This approach might work in early 1990s when applications were isolated. But now the applications are integrated. Approaches such as Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA) bring in industrial-scale integration. The assets almost freely travel from application to application. There are even composite applications that are just automated processes that live somewhere "between applications" in the integration layer. Therefore it is no longer enough to secure a couple of sensitive applications. All the applications, application infrastructure and integration layers needs to be secured as well.

As every security officer knows there is an aspect which is much more important than high security. It is consistent security. It makes no sense to have high security in one application while other application that works with same data is left unsecured. The security policies must be applied consistently across all applications. And this cannot be done in each of the application individually as this would be daunting and error-prone task. This has to be automated. As applications are integrated then also the security needs to be integrated. If it is not integrated then the security efficiently disappears.

Identity Management (IDM) systems are designed to integrate security policies across applications and infrastructure. The IDM systems are the only components that can see inside all the applications. The IDM system can make sure that the RBAC and SoD policies are applied consistently in all the applications. It can make sure that the accounts are deleted or disabled on time. As the IDM system can correlate data in many applications it can check for illegal accounts (e.g. accounts without a legal owner or sponsor).

IDM systems are essential. It is perhaps not possible to implement reasonable information security policy without it. However the IDM technology has a very bad reputation. It is considered to be very expensive and never-ending project. And rightfully so. The combination of inadequate products, vendor hype and naive deployment methods contributed to a huge number of IDM project failures in 2000s. The Identity and Access Management (IAM) projects ruined many security budgets. Luckily this first-generation IDM craze is drawing to an end. The second-generation products of 2010s are much more practical. They are lighter, open and much less expensive. Iterative and lean IDM deployments are finally possible.

Identity management must be an integral part of the security program. There is no question about that. Any security program is shamefully incomplete without the IDM part. The financial reasons to exclude IDM from the security program are gone now. Second generation of IDM systems finally delivers what the first generation has promised.

(Reposted from https://www.evolveum.com/security-insider-threat/)