Insider Threats a Major Security Issue for Federal Agencies

The MeriTalk survey found 51 percent of respondents say it is common for federal employees not to follow appropriate protocols.

meritalk and federal it

While the vast majority of federal agencies--76 percent--are more focused on combating insider threats today than they were a year ago, 45 percent were a target of an insider threat, and nearly one in three (29 percent) lost data to an insider threat in the last 12 months, according to a MeriTalk survey.

The report surveyed 150 federal IT managers familiar with their organizations’ cyber security efforts to examine the most common insider threats agencies face today, the strengths and weaknesses of insider threat programs, and how agencies can reduce the risks and consequences of this growing vulnerability.

The survey found 51 percent of respondents say it is common for employees to not follow appropriate protocols, and 40 percent say unauthorized employees access government information they shouldn’t at least once weekly – putting their agencies at significant risk.

In addition, agencies don’t know what they don’t know – 45 percent cannot tell if a document has been inappropriately shared, 42 percent cannot tell how a document was shared, and 34 percent cannot tell what data has been lost.

"The most startling finding from the survey is the fact that 45 percent of agencies say they’ve been a target of an attack – malicious or unintentional – yet 50 percent still say employees do not follow all the protocols in place," Steve O’Keeffe, founder of MeriTalk, told eWEEK. "There is also a lack of agreement on the best solution. Frequent, hands-on employee training is the key to preventing these incidents, as well as accountability. However, we are all human and people make mistakes. Agencies require robust security systems as a second line of defense when threats fall through the cracks."

Survey respondents were split in their opinion on the linchpin for preventing insider threat activity, with 40 percent citing end-user education or training, 40 percent citing security technology, and 20 percent citing additional controls or guidance.

"Agencies are adopting insider threat programs and in turn, reacting more quickly to threats. However, agencies still have a long way to go," O’Keeffe said. "If they adopt a holistic approach to preventing insider threats, they can greatly reduce the threat of an inside breach. Investments in the right technology – such as encryption and two-factor authentication – employee training, and education are critical."

He explained in-person, frequent training is most effective to better understand and prevent unintentional insider threat risk, and said the more often agencies remind their employees to update passwords, and other protocols to prevent breaches, the more likely they will be to comply.

"Some agencies adopt a give it and forget it approach to manuals and never update them again," he said. "With the rate that threats morph and the increasing number of malware each year, it’s imperative that agencies regularly update training documents and make employees aware of those changes. These exercises are a great way for agencies to better understand unintentional insider threats."