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  • Jouko Ahvenainen

Why spend big on cybersecurity when people are the weakest link?

It’s not expensive to buy a spy, according to a recent article. You can ‘buy’ a spy for $10,000 a year, or in more significant cases, you may need to pay $40,000 to $70,000, especially if the spy takes a considerable risk. There are other motives for people wanting to sell or give information, not just for military and international politics secrets. Human beings are a significant security risk for businesses. Can we do something to improve this weakest link?



Colonel Vladimir Vetrov was one of the most important spies during the cold war. He worked for the KGB and leaked more than 3,000 pages of documents to French intelligence, including the names of more than 400 Soviet operating agents. He operated from 1981-82, and it is said his information went direct to President Reagan. He played an essential role in exposing weaknesses in the Soviet Union, its dependence on stealing western technology and how an accelerating arms race was driving it to collapse.


However, it seems Colonel Vetrov didn’t do this for the money. He received some small gifts that he gave to his mistress, but nothing significant. He was more embittered with his career development at the KGB and also frustrated by the Soviet system. Several studies and cases demonstrate that embitterment is often a more important motive for spies to leak information than simple greed.


Edward Snowden leaked highly classified information. His motivation was not clear, and now that he is now in Russia, he has indicated he was unhappy that the US authorities spied on its own people. Wikileaks also received leaked information from other people working in governmental agencies.


Governments and enterprises spend a lot of money developing better solutions for physical and cybersecurity that are becoming increasingly significant. And these investments are definitely needed. But at the same time, it is important to remember; it’s people that leak information and create holes in even the most sophisticated systems.


I have personally seen cases of spying or information leaking during my career. Once, a person at a customer leaked information from our competitors and how some people in the organization worked with the other vendors because he was not happy about his position. In another case, a company warned us that a cleaner in our project office had collected documents and photos from our bid documents. In one extreme case, someone set off a fire alarm in an office, and several laptops of a new project team went missing. All these are old cases.


The question is, who can you trust? It is not an easy question to answer, and it is not black and white. Even the most loyal person can change and start to leak information. We could also say that no one is totally reliable; most people reveal information at some point, either intentionally or unintentionally.


One solution is to keep people loyal. A good salary helps, but even more important is to make people feel they are being treated fairly. Companies try to identify problems to keep their employees loyal and reliable, but it is rarely enough.


That raises the question as to what information is relevant. Many companies hide information that is not very relevant to anyone, competitors or customers. And those parties can usually get that information quite easily, so it is not a good investment to try to hide it at a high cost. It can also increase the risks of leaks if employees feel that irrelevant information is being classified as secret.


There are technology solutions to avoid, identify and reveal spying and information leaks. For example, one old method is to make each copy of the information (e.g. a document) unique in order to identify whose document was leaked. It is also important to track who has copied some confidential information or had access to a system. There are other solutions, e.g. identifying unusual behavior, setting test traps or monitoring communications.


It doesn’t make any sense for companies to take similar measures as critical governmental agencies if it creates ‘bad spirit’ in the organization. One big risk area nowadays is employees using their own devices and personal communication tools. Several simple solutions make sense.


Suppose sensitive discussions between business partners preparing a bid, between a company and its law firm, or amongst board members take place via a messaging app, a Facebook group or another similar service. In that case, it increases the risk of inadvertently sharing information with other parties. Sometimes it can happen accidentally, especially when people are handling multiple groups and discussions simultaneously. It is not realistic in many of these cases to force people to use higher security tools which can be challenging to enforce between organizations. Most security tools have been designed for use within an organization.


Technology is not the only solution to stop people from leaking confidential information. But technology can help to avoid accidental sharing, easy leaking and identify the sources of leaks. These solutions must be easy to use, and they must work with commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technologies and services. They can help keep information in closed groups, prevent direct sharing, and identify if someone has shared confidential information.


Security and trust in people is not black or white, more like shades of grey. There will always be people who want to spy and leak information, whatever it takes. But for the majority, it probably helps to have clear rules, better tools and increase the risk of getting caught. Any company that invests in building security in its physical and cyber environments must also think about building and monitoring trust with its people.


The article first appeared on Disruptive Asia.

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