Bad Times Call for a Security Check, Experts Say

"Disaster breeds opportunity," so the old slogan goes. But when it comes to uncertain economic times, companies should double-check their internal policies and procedures, security experts say.

A key question is whether layoffs, or the prospect of them, will increase the likelihood of information theft by employees. Slavik Markovich, CTO and founder of security firm Sentrigo Inc., advocates data monitoring as a preemptive measure.

"Now would be good time to refresh policy procedures with employees, and monitor their activities, especially those of privileged users," Markovich said. "It is equally important to monitor all access to data that is commonly targeted by insiders, even if seemingly it is not central to the company's business. Because data can be stolen without disappearing, monitoring is the only way to track events in a way that allows a quick response and mitigation."

Security experts pointed to scenarios where lax internal security can be a problem, leading to data theft, sabotage and security chaos. The threat rises with economic instability, according to Tyler Reguly, nCircle's head security engineer, in an e-mail comment.

"Now, however, in the face of deteriorating economic conditions as well as acquisitions and layoffs, the relative importance of insider threats is rising," Reguly wrote.

Data Theft
Unscrupulous people fearing job loss may "take insurance" in the form of stolen data they can sell later. The data could be used for identity theft or poaching customers, or they could bring sensitive information to competitors.

A recent survey by security firm Cyberark quantified the potential threat. Nearly 90 percent of IT administrator respondents admitted they would take sensitive information with them if their jobs were on the chopping block. At-risk information ranged from customer databases to the CEO's personal information. More than 33 percent said they would take the password list granting access to sensitive information, such as financial reports, accounts and HR records.

In the IT community, one practice is to carry out company sabotage for the sake of demonstrating employee necessity. Planting logic bombs is one example. It sends the message, "You're the only one who understands this; we need you back at the office."

A different case of sabotage happened this past July. Terry Childs, a disgruntled system administrator working for the city of San Francisco, suspected that he was about to be laid off. In response, he blocked access to the city's IT network infrastructure using a password only he knew, menacing the city's multimillion-dollar wide area network.

Security Chaos
Company mergers suggest impending layoffs, where the aim is to cut "redundant employees" in the name of market efficiency. It's fertile ground for security problems.

Cumbersome and drawn out mergers with long transitional periods may create an occasion for data to be mishandled, lost or stolen. Security protocols can be breached under the guise of helplessness or collaboration. For instance, someone may call and ask for help logging into a system.

"There is always risk and while you need to move fast, you also need to consider IT controls and scope very carefully and make sure you have conversion and security controls built into your plan," said Michael Cangemi, a past president of both Financial Executives International and the Information Systems Audit and Control Association.

About the Author

Jabulani Leffall is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in the Financial Times of London, Investor's Business Daily, The Economist and CFO Magazine, among others.


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