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Sanjeev Nanda on Pod Slurping

19 Jul

Pod Slurping – An easy technique for stealing data

The problem with uncontrolled use of iPods, USB sticks and flash drives on your network. A common misconception is that perimeter security measures such as firewalls and anti-virus software are enough to secure corporate data residing on the corporate network. In this white paper, we explore how the uncontrolled use of portable storage devices such as iPods, USB sticks, flash drives and PDAs, coupled with data theft techniques such as ‘pod slurping’, can lead to major security breaches.

Pod slurping: How can insiders steal your data?

Sanjeev Nanda How to Guides

iPods - if in wrong hands can do more damage

Developments in portable device and data storage technology are escalating. The latest versions of MP3 players and flash memory devices have huge storage capabilities; yet these gadgets are small enough to easily conceal and sneak in behind the corporate line of defence. Further to this, easy connectivity and high speed data transfer has become increasingly more widespread – a user may simply plug the device into a USB or FireWire port and they are up and running – no drivers or configuration required! In practice, this means that a data thief can get away with even more precious data, and a negligent employee can dump more viruses onto the corporate network even when connecting for only a short time. iPod is just one example of such portable contraptions. At a glance it is an innocent-looking portable audio device. However under the hood it boasts up to 60 GB of portable storage space; practically large enough to store all the data found in a typical workstation. This means that a malicious insider can use an iPod to covertly take out (i.e. ‘steal’) proprietary data and millions of financial, consumer or otherwise sensitive corporate records at one go!

Gartner analysts Contu and Girard (2004) warned of the security risks associated with the uncontrolled use of portable storage devices within corporations. Today, information theft has become a plague on modern society; data leakage, data ciphering, and data disclosure incidents are all but some of the terms used by security experts to refer to information theft. However, the most original term so far is probably the term ‘pod slurping’ that was coined by US security expert Abe Usher (2005).

Pod slurping: An easy technique for stealing data

Usher uses the term ‘pod slurping’ to describe how MP3 players such as iPods and other USB mass storage devices can be easily used to steal sensitive corporate data. “There are dishonest people in the world”, says Usher, “many of them work at many companies – and these USB devices make it rather trivial to steal huge amounts of data” (Schick, 2006). To demonstrate the vulnerability of corporate security, Usher developed a “proof of concept” software application that can automatically search corporate networks and copy (or “slurp”) business critical data onto an iPod. This software application runs directly from an iPod and when connected to a computer it can slurp (copy) large volumes of corporate data onto an iPod within minutes. What’s more is that slurping is not limited to iPods and MP3 players alone. All portable storage devices can be used to slurp information; digital cameras, PDAs, thumb drives, mobile phones and any other plug-and-play devices which have storage capabilities! Data slurping is a very simple automated process and does not require any technical expertise; a user may plugin the portable storage device to a corporate workstation and by the time it takes to listen to an MP3, all the sensitive corporate data on that workstation is copied to the portable storage device.

Insider information theft is a real problem

Information theft has now become a major concern for every organization and thus data leakage prevention is slowly taking up a bigger portion of the IT budget. This drive is attributed to two factors: The wave of malevolent threats that is hitting every industry and the increase in regulatory requirements which demand more protection and tighter controls over client records and other confidential information. More stringent controls and severe penalties are forcing organizations to address regulatory compliance more seriously. In January 2006, the Federal Trade Commission charged commercial data broker ChoicePoint Inc. a settlement fee of 15 million dollars for leaking consumer data and violating consumer privacy rights (Federal Trade Commission, 2006). A misconception shared by many organizations is that security threats mostly originate from outside the corporation. In fact, countless dollars are being spent every year on firewalls and other solutions that secure the corporate perimeter from external threats. However, statistics show that internal security breaches are growing faster than external attacks and at least half of security breaches originate from behind the corporate firewall. Unfortunately, corporate insiders are the first and easiest route to evade perimeter security. The trusted position of corporate employees and their constant exposure to corporate data makes detecting and stopping of data theft an enormous challenge – especially in environments where corporate data is largely distributed!

Why would insiders want to slurp information?

Sanjeev Nanda how to guides

Is your computer safe from insider theft.

Corporate data can be profitable in various ways; blueprints, engineering plans, tenders, pricelists, source code, database schemas, sound files, lyrics and much more – all this valuable intellectual property may be exploited
by individuals or corporations to gain economical and business advantage over their competitors. The 2006 CSI/FBI survey indicates theft of intellectual property as having the fourth highest economical effect over organizations (Gordon et al., 2006). Malicious perpetrators may also steal sensitive consumer information such as medical and financial records from a company and divulge it to the public. This would damage the company’s reputation as well as make it liable to legal prosecution for violating consumer privacy rights. In a nutshell, malicious intent, monetary gain and curiosity are probably the major motives behind information
theft. Anyone is an enemy for a price and thus perpetrators can be various. Disgruntled employees that believe they are disrespected or exploited by their employers may take advantage of their trusted position and sell
corporate plans and other sensitive information to direct competitors. Former employees who feel they have been unfairly dismissed may use their inside knowledge or exploit internal relationships to access, steal and
publicly expose consumer information and damage the company. Trusted insiders can also turn into paid informers and engage in industrial espionage, data warfare or other extensive fraudulent activities such as
‘identity theft’. The term ‘identity theft’ refers to crimes in which someone obtains and uses the personal details of another person (e.g. social security or credit card number) to commit criminal acts, usually for financial gain. To date it is the fastest growing crime in the United States. It was estimated that identity theft victims amounted to around nine million adults in the U.S. in 2005 (Johannes, 2006).

How can corporations mitigate the risks of information theft?

The key advantage of iPods and similar portable storage devices is easy access. In theory, this may be of great advantage for corporations. However, it is a well-reported fact that access and security are at opposite ends of
the security continuum. The reason is that you never know what users may be doing with their portable devices. An employee might appear to be listening to music on his iPod, but actually he or she might be uploading malicious files or slurping gigabytes of valuable corporate data. A possible solution to avoid information theft is to implement a corporate-wide portable storage control policy. To mitigate the security risks, some experts and researchers suggest conventional courses of action such as the physical blocking of ports, stringent supervision as well as drastic actions such as the total ban of iPods and similar devices from the workplace. However, this is not the best practical approach. Portable storage devices can be beneficial tools for the corporate workforce and a blanket ban would be counter-productive. In addition good practice dictates that you must never rely on voluntary compliance.