Contributor:
Russell Smith
December 22nd, 2011

Desktop Misadventures

Bradley Manning – the Private who’s accused of downloading 110,000 U.S. State Department cables to his PC, copying them to a removable drive and then passing the information to Wikileaks – has been in the news again this week as his trial begins. The incident highlights a massive security failing by the U.S. military.

In the first instance, Manning’s ability to view classified data that he had no need to access, and secondly the capability to copy the information undetected from his workstation. While a somewhat extreme case of the unpleasant consequences desktop privileges can have for an employee, I recently stumbled across a post in an IT forum that demonstrated a similar problem – but in the corporate world.

A rather distraught software developer was accused of stealing data from his previous employers. The company claimed he circumvented the USB monitoring system when copying files to a flash drive because IT couldn’t find any evidence in the logs that the files had been transferred to the removable drive. As a software developer, he had admin rights on his PC and the company is now threatening legal action.

I don’t know whether the company has any legal basis on which to make such threats, but as has been said many times before, giving users administrative rights unleashes the potential to override Group Policy, Windows security and any other defensive measures you decide to put in place on your systems.

It’s in everyone’s interest to work with the minimum privileges required to carry out the job at hand, especially if users want to avoid being held responsible for a major security incident. The likelihood of inadvertently causing a devastating virus outbreak, installing unlicensed software or otherwise circumventing security policy is significantly greater if running with admin rights. As the risks are not usually taken seriously, it can help to illustrate what the consequences of a virus attack or other security incident might be, not only for the company but also the employee.

Someone who pressures the IT department to run with admin rights without good reason and then infects the network with a virus, not only causes downtime for themselves, but makes extra work for the IT department and frequently the consequences are felt by other employees, who see their own machines infected or network services become unavailable. You could compare it to calling the doctor when the symptoms are nothing more than a minor sniffle, wasting valuable resources and denying those who are really ill the vital help they need.

It’s important to communicate the effect that computer misadventures can have. Pose the question: Do you really want to be responsible for downtime that brings the organization to a standstill? Teach users to be good corporate citizens by giving real-life analogies of IT security problems and examples of the possible consequences should something go awry.

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