U.S. Air Force Courtesy photo illustration
U.S. Air Force Courtesy photo illustration

Air Force hub uncovers insider threats

by Lori A. Bultman
25th Air Force Public Affairs

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas (AFNS) -- “If you make a mistake, it is better to acknowledge that one small mistake than let it snowball into something more significant.” This, according to Jason Barron, Air Force Insider Threat Hub deputy director for operations, is the key to safeguarding important information and resources.

As the Air Force’s defense against insider threats, identifying indicators of potential risk is the hub’s primary mission, but not all indicators they detect are symptoms of espionage or intentional wrongdoing. According to Barron, most indicators are unintended exposures, or the result of policy and training gaps.

“If someone is issued a speeding ticket, it does not necessarily mean they did something to indicate they are an insider threat; it all depends on the severity and quantity of unique indicators,” Barron said. “We may look for other indicators that, when put together, could mean something more substantial – even then, the team does not act individually against indicators discovered.”

According to Barron, personnel in the insider threat hub identify, aggregate, analyze and refer potential risk indicators. The teams relay their findings to other agencies for review and possible action. Additionally, the hub has a lawyer on staff to ensure any referrals are in accordance with established policies and laws.

“We provide information we find to authorities within the Air Force. When we identify something on an individual within the Air Force who might be a risk, whether intentional or otherwise, we provide that information to a decision maker in higher authority who is in place to determine whether an action needs to result,” Barron said.

Hub personnel also receive threat information from other sources.

“We might have a point of contact in the field who relays risk concerns to us,” Barron said. “The team in the hub can look into a reported concern and determine whether there is enough to consider it a viable threat.”

Workplace violence is another insider threat concern for the team.

“If someone commits a security violation but is cleared of espionage, that does not mean there is not a policy issue we could address,” said J.T. Mendoza, Air Force Insider Threat Hub deputy director for strategy and integration. “While it is difficult to quantify the damage someone caused when documents or classified items are taken, an act of violence is often more damaging due to human life being involved.

When Barron and his team established the 25th Air Force Insider Threat Program in 2014, their goal was to stop technical related insider threats before they grew into major breaches for the Air Force intelligence community.

Within the program, a myriad of staff members from varying backgrounds sifted through data in an attempt to locate indicators of threats and vulnerabilities. In April 2017, Air Force officials had enough confidence in the program capabilities that it became the services interim hub until a permanent Air Force hub could be established.

“During the year we were the interim hub, we put a lot of processes into place. We built a solid foundation from internal analysis, data integration, increases in manpower and capabilities and the implementation of reporting procedures,” Barron said.

The Air Force made a decision in October 2018 to transition the organization from being the interim hub to the permanent insider threat epicenter, while the team continued to prepare for the transition and acquire more space and personnel. Significant support and coordination from local 25th Air Force and Air Staff leadership was required to achieve this milestone.

“Preparations for the transition also included establishing the policies and documentation required to run a cooperative matrix organization,” Barron said. “We more than tripled the hub staff and added coordinating representatives within each major command.”

“One of the challenges we face is finding the right people and being able to train and develop them into what we believe is the right skill set,” he said. “There is no specialty code within the Air Force or department at large for what we do; we are creating most of our procedures as we go. We are where cyber was 10 to 15 years ago.”

Another challenge for hub personnel is figuring out how to share data between multiple agencies who might help connect indicators.

“Sharing information between organizations that have different authorities or conduct different missions is difficult,” Barron said. “The root of this mission is sharing risk information, just like commanders share information on the battlefield. It is a challenge across any mission set; how do I share the right information, at the right time, at the right level to make a decision?

“What we have done is partner within our matrix organization to put people from different agencies in the same place to allow ease and speed of sharing critical information,” he said. “Having that proximity to each other really helps speed up processes. If information is not documented and shared in an appropriate manner, you are going to have a hard time piecing dots together to look at information over time and mitigating threats.”

Since its inception, the Air Force Insider Threat Program has experienced many successes, ranging from notifying organizations of security shortfalls and identifying indicators of suicide, to de-conflicting individuals’ identities in reporting. Its next milestone will be reaching full operational capability status, expected in the next 12 months according to Barron.

The Air Force Insider Threat team encourages all Airmen, military, civilian and contractor, to contact their security office or appropriate chain of command to report potential insider threat incidents, including accidental or unintentional indicators; it could resolve potential incidents before they become legitimate threats.

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