Protect Yourself from IT Staff Abuse: How to Manage Privileged Identities

In the recent past, we've seen widely publicized instances of IT staffs abusing their privileges. Right now some organization is unknowingly falling victim to malicious activity by a member of its own IT staff. For these reasons, organizations' internal IT practices are increasingly coming under the scrutiny of auditors. Here, Knowledge Center contributor Udi Mokady provides a checklist of five ways companies can secure and manage privileged identities to prevent IT staff abuse.


Over the past couple of years, there has been an endless stream of statistics about insider threat. However, the vast majority of IT security officers appear to be oblivious to them. So, here's a stat I guarantee will not be disputed: Right now there is a 100 percent chance that some organization is the victim of either malicious activity by a member of their own IT staff or the stubbornness of one of their company officers.

But forget the stats for a second, and just look at the headlines in the news. In the past several months alone, we've had instances in San Francisco, San Diego, Lichtenstein and a host of other instances of IT staff abusing their privileges. In these cases, the problem is ultimately due to a lack of control and proper process within the organization.

Privileged accounts can bypass most internal controls to access confidential information and cause denial of service (DoS) attacks, either by deleting data or rendering applications inoperable. In many cases, unauthorized users can use privileged accounts to cover their tracks by destroying audit data.

In a recent case in San Diego, an IT specialist had deliberately deleted patient and allied data from his former employer's computer systems. He now has five years to reflect on his actions but the damage is done. In San Francisco, a computer network administrator for the Department of Technology tampered with the network, which contains the city's sensitive data, and created an administrative password that gave him exclusive administrative access. Apart from the embarrassing publicity and inconvenience, the millions of dollars it will reportedly cost to fix should be enough of a statistic to make you pause for thought! And, in both cases and so many others, the situation was easily and inexpensively avoidable.

The challenge is to ensure proper use of these accounts. The challenge is that shared superuser accounts-which are generally system-defined in operating systems, databases and network devices-pose significant risks when the passwords are routinely shared by multiple users. So, too, do shared fire call accounts, which are used to deal with critical problems outside normal working hours (when passwords are managed using fragile manual processes).

Compliance is key; think like an auditor

In the end, it all comes down to internal regulations and compliance. There is a need for internal processes to manage shared account passwords in a controlled and accountable way. Home-grown solutions such as spreadsheets, printouts, sticky notes and envelopes are old-fashioned. They also don't scale or provide sufficient levels of security and auditing specifics that today's auditors require. And if an auditor can spot them, statistically speaking, someone internally with a little IT savvy will see them as well and take advantage.