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Book chapter: Insider theft of intellectual property

This is an excerpt from the book The CERT Guide to Insider Threats describing entitlement-based attack models and how to implement controls.

The CERT Guide to Insider ThreatsThe following is an excerpt from the book The CERT Guide to Insider Threats by Dawn M Cappelli, Andrew P Moore, and Randall F. Trzeciak. This section describes entitlement-based attack models and how to implement controls to prevent entitled assailants from gaining access to critical information.

The Entitled Independent
This section describes the model of the Entitled Independent, an insider acting primarily alone to steal information to take to a new job or to his own side business.

Based on our review of incident descriptions and interviews with victim organizations, investigators, and prosecutors of insider cases, we determined that most insiders felt entitled to take the information they were accused of stealing. The majority of the insiders stole information that they had worked on while employed by the organization.

Insider Contribution and Entitlement
Figure 3-3 shows how the insider’s feeling of entitlement toward the information he develops escalates over time. The employee comes into your organization with a desire to contribute to its efforts. As time goes on and he develops information, writes source code, or creates products, his contribution becomes more tangible. These insiders, unlike most employees and contractors, have personal predispositions that result in a perceived sense of ownership and entitlement to the information created by the entire group. The longer he works on the product, the more his sense of entitlement grows.

This sense of entitlement can be particularly strong if the insider perceives his role in the development of products as especially important. If his work is dedicated to a particular product—for example, development of a software system, or the building of customer contact lists—he may have a great sense of ownership of that product or information. This leads to an even greater sense of entitlement. In addition, consistent with good management practice, individuals may receive positive feedback for their efforts,which may further reinforce their sense of ownership, because of their predispositions.

Evidence of entitlement was extreme in a few cases. One Entitled Independent, who had stolen and marketed a copy of his employer’s critical software, created a lengthy manuscript detailing his innocence and declaring that everyone at the trial had lied. After being denied a raise, another insider stole the company’s client database and threatened to put them out of business on his way out the door.

More on insider threats

In this exclusive tip for, author Dawn Cappelli offers specific monitoring strategies for insider threat detection.

In our Insider threat management guide, expert Gideon Rasmussen details how to implement effective insider threat controls.

What Can You Do?
Knowing that insiders who steal IP tend to steal the assets they helped to develop is a key factor in designing a mitigation strategy. If you can identify your critical intellectual property, you can narrow down the list of employees and contractors who are at highest risk of stealing it to those who are working on it now or have worked on it in the past.

In addition, keep in mind that people move around within your organization. How good are you at adjusting access controls as those moves happen? Just because someone has moved to another project or area of the organization doesn’t mean he doesn’t still feel a sense of entitlement to his past work. Erosion of access controls is a problem that needs to be solved in order to reduce risk of insider theft of intellectual property. Almost three-quarters of the insiders in our theft of IP cases had authorized access to the information stolen at the time of the theft, but that doesn’t mean that all of them should have had access. In many organizations, employees tend to transfer over time to different parts of the organization. They often accumulate privileges needed to perform new tasks as they move, without losing access they no longer need. Unfortunately, many insiders, at the time when they stole information, had accesses above and beyond what their job descriptions required.

Read the whole chapter

To learn more, download all of Chapter 3: Insider Theft of Intellectual Property.

We suggest that you periodically review and adjust your access controls for critical assets. We helped one organization set up an effective mechanism for controlling access once an employee transfers to another group. The organization realized that it couldn’t disable the employee’s access immediately upon transfer since there is typically a transition period in which the employee still needs access to his old team’s information. So the organization set up an automated email to be sent from its HR system to the employee’s previous supervisor three months after the date of transfer. This email lists all of the email aliases the employee is on, shared folders and collaboration sites to which the employee has access, and so on, and suggests that the supervisor contact IT to disable any access that is no longer necessary. This mechanism has been very successful in controlling the erosion of access controls in the organization. 

Some insiders exhibited an unusual degree of possessiveness toward their work before stealing it. For instance, a few insiders kept all source code on their own laptops and refused to store it on the file servers, so they would have full control over it. This type of behavior should be recognized and remediated as early as possible.

Excerpted from The CERT Guide to Insider Threats: How to Prevent, Detect, and Respond to Information Technology Crimes (Theft, Sabotage, Fraud) (Addison-Wesley Professional; 2012) with permission from publisher Addison-Wesley Professional.

This was last published in April 2012

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