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.

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