Insider attack expert says White House efforts against leaks could backfire

Insider attack expert says White House efforts against leaks could backfire
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An expert on insider threats says White House efforts to punish staffers could backfire and exacerbate the administration's leaking problem. 

Matthew Bunn, co-editor of the new book “Insider Threats,” warns that White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s reported efforts to perform spot checks on staffer phones risks making disgruntled employees even more unhappy — and more likely to leak.

“An aggressive approach to insiders will increase disgruntlement,” he said.

Bunn, a Harvard professor, edited the book with Stanford professor Scott D. Sagan. It includes submissions from academics and experts around the world who trace inside threats ranging from Indira Gandhi’s assassination at the hands of her guards to the Fort Hood massacre to famous leakers like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. 

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Manning, noted Bunn, was punished for tardiness three weeks before she started downloading secret State Department cables she would eventually release to WikiLeaks. 

There are, obviously, other contributing factors.

Manning had ideological motivations and had begun to show signs of extreme stress — at the counseling meeting where her weekly day off was revoked in response to lateness, she flipped a table over and had to be restrained from reaching for weapons, her lawyer said during sentencing at her trial. 

Bunn has studied how the professions most susceptible to insider threats — including casinos, pharmaceutical companies and nuclear plants — have adapted to the challenge of preventing leaks. 

He said there are a variety of factors that lead to insider threats beyond ideology, including disgruntlement, coercion and the desire to demonstrate how smart someone is. But while leaks are common in any administration, the frequency of leaks in this administration might point to endemic dissent among executive branch staff. 

“If people think secret work they are doing is important and worthwhile, they are usually able to keep a secret. When you see this amount of leaking, it suggests that a lot of people are concerned,“ he said. 

President Trump has blasted leaks from his administration, as have staff from the White House.

“The real story here is why are there so many illegal leaks coming out of Washington? Will these leaks be happening as I deal on N.Korea etc?” he tweeted after reports circulated that former national security adviser Michael Flynn talked about sanctions with Russia — after telling Vice President Pence that he had not. Flynn resigned after the story broke.

On Monday, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), chair of the House Intelligence Committee, expressed his own worries about the spate of leaks. “We can't run a government like this. A government can't function with massive leaks at the highest level,” he said.

Across industries and governments, Bunn’s research demonstrates that employee disgruntlement is a common preventable cause of insider threats. Though there is no evidence it is the cause of the Trump leaks, Bunn said one major factor is disrespectful bosses. 

One of the easiest preventative measures against inside threats, he said, was to post a simple employee complaint box and occasionally pay reverence to it.  

Insider threats can be avoided in a variety of cases by treating them as a serious problem, he said. Employers need to be vigilant about putting too much faith in personnel, as often times the urge to trust coworkers blinds people to signs they are a risk. 

Many of the things employers can do to prevent inside threats will also prevent external ones.

The facility Snowden worked at had not installed software that monitored networks for unusual downloads — something that would have both caught Snowden and any hacker that had stolen employee credentials.

Like many security experts, Bunn advocated "segmenting networks" by ensuring that employees don’t have access to data they don’t need access to. Manning was only a private when she downloaded all of the State Department’s international cables.