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WikiLeaks Debacle Points to Least Privilege Weakest Link

Posted December 3, 2010    Peter McCalister

We’re used to the media getting side tracked by the content of data breach stories, rather than how they happened, as other posts here have regularly noted.

Not surprisingly then, the recent Wikileaks story is no different.  With thousands of sensitive diplomatic dispatches to wade through, reporters will likely have enough information to keep them busy through Christmas.

Of course, there is a place for this analysis, and yet not for the first time, another opportunity has been lost to pin-point the weakest link in better securing data.

Although it’s likely the White House attempt to identify the weakest link, earlier this week, was one of many smokescreens to divert attention from the content of the leaks, their missive to those responsible for handling classified information, was surprisingly accurate.

…create a “security assessment team” to review the implementation of procedures to safeguard such information, a review to include making sure that no employee has access to information beyond what is necessary to do his or her job effectively.”

By pointing to the management of privileges, as the cornerstone of best security practice, they recognize the delicate balance which must be struck, between ensuring productivity on the one hand, and security on the other.  Bottomline:  by leveraging access based on job definition and the privileges that job requires, rather than seniority, organizations will ensure no employee has access to information ‘beyond what is necessary to do his or her job effectively’.  CEOs don’t need access to servers running the network, while the IT Help Desk doesn’t need access to the CFO’s domain.

However, what the White House doesn’t say is just how rife access to information ‘beyond what is necessary to do his or her job effectively’ (over privilege access) is.

According to a multi-industry survey conducted by the Ponemon Institute earlier this year, 79% of government IT practitioners admitted to having too much access to information resources that aren’t pertinent to their role in the organization.

79% is a startling figure.

The reports authors rightly say this may be because government organizations cannot keep pace with access change, which is continuously changing, and indeed, 75% of those surveyed said that they could not respond quickly enough to such changes.  60% also do not immediately check user requests against security policies before access is approved and assigned.

This speaks of a world in which access, when it is controlled, is still elevated manually, by request (or not) from individual users, leaving networks access open to abuse, either through error, or, as is the case with Wikileaks from employees set on making mischief.

Far better government organizations consider some of kind of automated privilege access lifecycle management, which elevates access, based on the pre-prescribed role definition of each employee, and, keeps a log to show who went where, when, and for how long.

This doesn’t by any stretch, prevent data breaches from happening.  If someone has privilege access, they can still steal or leak sensitive data.  What good Privilege Access Lifecycle Management (PALM) does do, however, is provide a strong deterrent, because good PALM means access is not just leveraged on a ‘needs must’ basis, it is logged too.

In organizations where everyone has full administrator access to the network, determining who might have leaked data, would be like looking for a needle in a haystack.  For organizations, running good PALM systems, it’s possible to narrow down the possibilities of who had access to what and when, to fewer individuals.  With that in mind, employees might think again before blowing the whistle.

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