Public Sector Case Study
In May 2013, Edward Snowden, a National Security Agency (NSA) contractor, met a journalist and leaked thousands of documents detailing how the U.S. conducts intelligence surveillance across the Internet. In June 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice charged Snowden with espionage. Not long afterward, Snowden left the United States and finally sought refuge in Russia. The Russian government denied any involvement in Snowden’s actions but did grant him asylum.
While this story reads like a spy novel, it raises a number of information security policy questions. For this discussion is not important whether Snowden was a traitor, a spy, or a whistleblower. The issue here is the security policies and controls that allowed a part-time NSA contractor to gain unauthorized access to highly sensitive material. This is particularly important because in April 2014, the Department of Defense announced adoption of the NIST standards. Would the Snowden breach have been prevented if the NIST standards had been adopted earlier?
Given the secret nature of the NSA, the full details of how this breach of sensitive data occurred may never come out. However, reports indicate that Snowden worked part time for an American consulting company that did work for the NSA in Hawaii. There he gained access to thousands of documents that detailed how the U.S. government works with telecommunication companies and other governments to capture and analyze traffic over the Internet. The details of the scope and nature of this global surveillance program were not publicly known and considered secret.
It’s clear from the reporting that Snowden had excessive access; that is to say, he was granted access beyond the requirements of his job. Additionally, reports indicated that he used other people’s usernames and passwords. He obtained these IDs through social engineering. Finally, consider the way in which he accessed and captured the information. Some reports indicate he used inexpensive and widely available software to electronically crawl through the agency’s networks. There are also indications that he removed the information on a USB memory stick.
Social engineering refers to the use of human interactions to gain access. Typically it means using personal relationships to trick an individual into granting access to something you should not have. For example, you might ask to borrow someone’s keycard to use the restroom but instead use the keycard to access the data center. Or perhaps you might ask for someone’s ID and password to fix his or her computer, and then later use those credentials to access customer information.
If he had used a Web crawler to automate the capturing of thousands of documents, Snowden would have been using software that is widely available over the Internet, and free of charge. Web crawler software simply starts browsing a Web page looking for links and then downloads related content. A Web page then links the Web crawler to another page and the process starts all over again. Thousands of Web pages are quickly scanned in a matter of minutes or hours, depending on the content. More sophisticated Web crawler software looks for specific documents to download. Snowden worked at the NSA for several months, accumulating thousands of documents and reportedly had access to 1.7 million documents in all.
There were clear NIST framework violations. For purposes of this discussion, the focus is on the network and social engineering. NIST publications outline other standards that were violated, such as effective security management and oversight.
The following four NIST framework network policies were clearly violated:
• Sharing of passwords
• Excessive access
• Penetration testing
It’s never a good idea to share passwords. This would be a clear violation of security policy, especially by anyone handling classified data. Additionally, the level of access must be considered a policy violation. Any security framework generally prohibits granting access not related to the individual’s job function. It’s clear from the volume of material involved in the Snowden affair, and its classified nature, that the access he was granted was excessive for the role he performed.
The NIST framework outlines the guidance on penetration testing. Such testing would have clearly demonstrated the weaknesses of controls that allowed a Web crawler to scan and download thousands of documents. This type of testing and assessment would provide another opportunity to correct the network control deficiencies prior to a breach.
The NIST framework outlines the requirements for effective network monitoring. These requirements require logs to be reviewed in a timely manner. Log reviews are a detective control and essential in identifying potential hackers. Keep in mind Snowden scanned the internal network for months while downloading vast amounts of data. Hackers tend to probe a network for weaknesses prior to a breach. Assume that some of those links the Web crawler attempted to access resulted in an access violation. These violations would have been an indicator of a potential breach in progress. This type of monitoring would have provided another opportunity to correct the network control deficiencies and identify Snowden as an internal hacker.
Finally, consider the lack of controls that allowed Snowden to remove so many documents on a USB memory stick. This unusual activity could have been prevented, or, at a minimum, detected, given the volume of material extracted—especially given that many organizations have in place additional controls to monitor contractor activities.
Some of the specifics of the Snowden breach may never be known. Nonetheless, a security policy framework must be a comprehensive way of looking at information risks and ensuring there are layers of controls to prevent data breaches. This case is typical of a breach occurring over many months, indicating the breakdown of multiple controls. It represents both a lack of effective security policies and lost opportunities to detect a breach over several months.
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