Microsoft Outlook — An Attack Vector for Federal Agencies

Last month the Washington Post reported a former Energy Department employee was sentenced to 18 months in prison. He was convicted of offering to help a foreign government infiltrate the agency’s computer system to steal nuclear secrets, and then attempting an email “spear-phishing” attack in an FBI sting operation.

The former employee had in his possession thousands of valid federal employee emails. There is a very good chance that he exported these contacts from Microsoft Outlook when he was terminated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2010. And had the FBI not foiled the plot, the odds are very high that the spear-phishing attack would have been successful. According to the 2015 Ponemon Institute report “The Unintentional Insider Risk in United States and German Organizations,” 86 percent of the U.S. organizations assessed it likely their users would fall victim to spear-phishing attempts.

Employees leaving their jobs often take data with them — that point has been well established. An article from PCWorld details how your employees can create a “Digital Life Raft” containing contacts, important emails, and recent work files ready in a special folder on their computer desktop in case of a sudden separation. The article does include a warning that employees should do this “while respecting your company’s intellectual property rights.”

How realistic is that in the real world? Are you comfortable assuming your agency’s employees are all knowledgeable enough to make that determination?

There are very few legitimate reasons for an employee to use the Microsoft Outlook import/export wizard to copy his or her contacts to another file. Two of those might be replacing an agency iPhone or supplying a user with a new laptop. Do your agency’s risk management plans include policy that clarifies when this type of activity is reasonable and proper? The National Insider Threat Policy and Minimum Standards for Executive Branch Insider Threat Programs includes requirements for these kinds of situations.

There are a few key issues you need to clarify first. Are Outlook contacts your agency’s intellectual property? Should LinkedIn contacts be considered trade secrets? Attorneys (I am not one and this is should not be considered legal advice) across the county continue to explore these issues in the courts. But most assuredly your agency’s employees are not reading legal journals in their spare time to keep track of these developments. So what can you do?

Here are some steps you can take to address this real attack vector:  

  • Develop a policy. An agency policy on the handling of internal and external contacts might flow down into contracts, non-disclosure agreements and network interconnection agreements.
  • Train. Educate your employees on the policy so they understand the proprietary nature of these contacts and remind them you have a right to audit their use of the agency’s information systems to verify compliance with the policy.
  • Monitor employee compliance with your policies. Tune your user activity monitoring and data leakage prevention solutions to detect policy violations.  Can your solutions detect this activity and provide the context necessary to take appropriate action?
  • Take action. Follow through on policy enforcement and don’t forget to feed the results back into your policies, processes, and training. You’re going to find ways to enable your employees to work smarter and safer.

Of course, the vast majority of agency employees are honest public servants who pose no insider threat. However, as the recent spear-phishing arrest shows, it only takes one bad apple to endanger sensitive government data. Comprehensive solutions that monitor data and human behavior are critical for organizations to effectively detect risky activities relating to email contacts and to decide if the actions represent a threat.

Microsoft Outlook might seem innocuous, but Outlook contacts represent a serious attack vector. Implement some auditing and policy around how such contacts are managed, and you may be surprised to discover what your employees are doing — and who is about to leave your agency.

This content is made possible by our sponsor. The editorial staff of Government Executive was not involved in its preparation.


Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

  • The Big Data Campaign Trail

    With everyone so focused on security following recent breaches at federal, state and local government and education institutions, there has been little emphasis on the need for better operations. This report breaks down some of the biggest operational challenges in IT management and provides insight into how agencies and leaders can successfully solve some of the biggest lingering government IT issues.

  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.

  • Ongoing Efforts in Veterans Health Care Modernization

    This report discusses the current state of veterans health care


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.