Workers who sabotage corporate systems are almost always IT workers suffering from some form of mental derangement, according to recent research.

That is the conclusion of the US military in conjunction with Carnegie Mellon University’s Software Engineering Institute Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) programme, which together analysed insider cyber-crimes across a variety of critical industry sectors.

The research suggests that potential troublemakers should be easy to spot. Nearly all the cases of cyber-crime investigated were carried out by people who were "disgruntled, paranoid, generally show up late, argue with colleagues, and generally perform poorly".

According to the research, 86 per cent of those who committed cyber-crimes held technical positions and 90 per cent had system administrator or privileged system access. Almost half - 41 per cent - of those who sabotaged IT systems were employed at the time they did it but most crimes were committed by insiders following termination. Most incursions - 64 per cent - involved VPNs and old passwords that had never been terminated, highlighting a lack of security controls and gaps in their organisations’ access controls.

As a result, Carnegie Mellon has developed a methodology that it said can help detect insider threats as early as possible, involving management, IT, human resources, security officers, and others who "must understand the psychological, organisational, and technical aspects of the problem, as well as how they coordinate their actions over time".

The university's study, Management and Education of the Risk of Insider Threat (MERIT): System Dynamics Modeling of Computer System Sabotage, is available here [pdf].

According to security management vendor Calum Macleod of Cyber-Ark, most organisations are leaving themselves exposed by "not paying due care and attention to the people who are charged with looking after their systems and applications". Even outsourcing cannot resolve the problem fully, he said.

Macleod's solution is password management. This means ensuring that policies and standards are in place to control administrative access by containing the number of privileged accounts to three or fewer. This reduces the difficulty of managing those accounts. Passwords also need to be changed regularly.

Macleod concluded: "So as far as doing the right thing, I’d suggest that you start from the basis that your IT staff are the biggest risk to your organisation’s security, and if anyone of them disputes this, remember that arguing with colleagues was one of the clear signs of an impending attack.

"And automate the whole process. If privileged password management is not on your shopping list in 2007 it may already be too late."