Economic Espionage: The Global Workforce and the Insider Threat

The Reality of Economic Espionage

It isn’t natural to think of your colleagues, be they in the next cubicle or across the globe, as a threat — and most aren’t. Sadly, a good deal of industrial, corporate or economic espionage is made possible or conducted by these colleagues, or as they are referred to today, insiders. Who would think Walt Kelly’s famous quote, “We have met the enemy and he is us,” would be applicable to deciphering and mitigating the risk to a company’s information some 45 years later.

Yet as we look at the global workforce and the myriad ways in which we engage with our colleagues both near and far, the statement rings true. The insider threat is a very real phenomenon that’s worthy of attention regardless of your organization’s size — though the multinational corporation with thousands of employees will be clearing more and higher hurdles than the small or medium businesses with their workforce under one roof.

Is There Really an Insider Threat?

Unfortunately the insider threat is very real. The IBM 2015 Cyber Security Intelligence Index report provided sobering numbers: 31.5 percent of data breaches are attributable to malicious insiders and 23.5 percent are due to insider errors or nonadherence to process and policies that lead to inadvertent data breaches or disclosures.

In sum, more than 50 percent of data breach incidents in 2014 can be attributed to insiders, which is an individual with physical or remote access to a company’s infrastructure. For those companies with global footprints and varied privacy and data handling requirements, the potential for unmitigated insider threat issues may be a constant.

IBM 2015 Cyber Security Intelligence Index

If that isn’t enough to get your attention, a recent Sailpoint Survey revealed that 1 in 7 employees would sell their password credentials to a third party for as little as $150. The same survey shows more than half would reuse their personal passwords for accessing corporate applications or networks. The simple means by which companies of all sizes can protect against the use of purchased or compromised passwords is by integrating two-factor or multifactor authentication processes when accessing data in addition to requiring passwords.

The majority of employees may believe it perfectly normal to take corporate information with them on their way out the corporate door. Dark Reading detailed how departing employees believe it totally appropriate to “take corporate data with them via their PCs, tablets, smartphones or cloud file-sharing applications.” The article goes on to note how 42 percent believe that using source code from other companies is not a crime.

Is it economic espionage if an employee takes your data and then uses it for his or her own purposes, even if it is simply professional advancement?

How Do You Protect Against the Insider Threat?

First and foremost, security awareness training and education can reduce the number of inadvertent actors leading to disclosures. Teach your employees to keep a secret — after all, your company’s secrets are the treasures you’re trying to protect.

Read the complete 2015 IBM Cyber Security Intelligence Index

In crafting these awareness efforts, smaller companies are able to create a single instance for sharing. The larger, multinational organizations must think in the context of a global solution that can be augmented for local applicability. Cultures, laws and infrastructure will have a say in the processes and procedures surrounding company data.

Clearly the use of others’ source code without appropriate permissions is inappropriate. Every organization must self-police to ensure personnel are not swiping source code from others. If it is discovered, the code must be returned to its rightful owner.

During the orientation process, the new employees should be made to attest that they are not bringing outside intellectual property into the company. When they exit the organization, they should once again attest they are not taking intellectual property with them. While it may not be effective against the malevolent employee, it will certainly arm the company with a documented process by which the expectation was levied.

While there will always be those who have the potential to break trust or be induced to commit a form of economic espionage, data protection requires people, process and technology to work in unison to effectively win the battle against the insider threat.

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Christopher Burgess

CEO at Prevendra

Christopher Burgess is the CEO of Prevendra, a security, privacy and intelligence company. He is also an author, speaker and advocate for effective security strategies, be they for your company, home or family. Christopher co-authored "Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost: Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century" (Syngress, March 2008) and authored the e-book, "Senior Online Safety" (Prevendra, March 2014) and is the voice behind the website, "Senior Online Safety." Prior to the founding of Prevendra, Christopher held a variety of private and public sector positions, which included, chief operating office and chief security officer of a big data analytic company, Atigeo; Senior Security Advisor to the CSO of Cisco, a Fortune 100, and 30+ years within the Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA awarded him the Distinguished Career Intelligence Medal upon his retirement. Christopher resides in Woodinville, WA with his family, two dogs and two horses.