Insider threats are one of the biggest internal cyber threats to organizations because they are often detected too late, and the responsible individual has access to sensitive information that gets released or exposed. Insider threats can pose a significant concern for organizations of all sizes and industries because they can result in severe financial and reputational damage and even legal penalties.
Additionally, insider attacks, whether intentional or unintentional, are typically NOT covered by cyber insurance because they are a failure of company security policy and not resulting from an external cyber attack. Companies need to understand how to detect potential insider threats and mitigate the risks of insider threats, and ultimately how to prevent them from occurring in the first place.
This post will cover how insider threats can be recognized, managed, detected, and prevented to minimize the overall risk of an internal breach.
What are Insider Threats?
Insider threats are security risks that come from within an organization, which usually result from negligence or malicious actions of individuals. Because insider threats often have access to business-critical information, it is considered a highly critical cyber threat that must be secured.
These threats are incredibly difficult to pinpoint because, by definition, insiders have legitimate access to the organization’s data and, in some cases, critical assets. They have extensive knowledge of the company’s security policies, data storage locations, and, in some cases, how to bypass security protocols.
Individuals that may pose a threat are not strictly limited to employees — they can include anyone that once had access to confidential or proprietary information:
- Board members
- Executive leadership
- Former staff
- Third-party vendors
Even if the threat itself is accidental, there is an increased likelihood of malicious threat actors or hackers waiting to take advantage of poor security policies to steal confidential company data, intellectual property, or trade secrets to commit fraud, theft of data with the intention of financial gain, or purposeful sabotage.
Types of Insider Threats
There are three main types of insider threats:
- Accidental or negligent - Accidental or negligent insiders are employees who unknowingly contribute to a security breach due to human error or lapse in judgment. In most cases, negligence results from a lack of oversight, no security monitoring, and poor cybersecurity training.
- Malicious - Malicious insiders are typically disgruntled or former employees that intentionally expose sensitive data for malicious purposes. Their intentions are to sabotage the company due to a grievance, disagreement, or for personal gain.
- Compromised - A compromised insider may not even be aware they have been breached, which subsequently leads to more security issues and potential data loss. They may become compromised through phishing attacks, social engineering attacks, or malware attacks.
However, insider threats are not confined to just negligent or malicious individuals. Those that are aware and fail to report suspicious or malicious activity can also be seen as complicit and an extension of the primary threat.
Recognizing Signs of an Insider Threat
Insider threats can often be hard to detect since the threats originate from individuals that have authorized credentials, making it harder to track unauthorized or suspicious activity. The trick is to recognize unusual signs of activity as soon as possible to prevent a potential security breach.
Here are some examples of the most common insider threat indicators:
- Disgruntled employees displaying negative behaviors
- Unusual account activity or user behavior
- Random or unexplained spikes in network traffic
- Unnatural data downloads
- Attempts to access restricted files or systems
- Suspicious emails or messages to external parties
- Accessing files or systems during off hours
- Use of unapproved remote device connections
How Organizations Can Detect Insider Threats
For many organizations, detecting insider threats is the most difficult part of a risk management strategy for several reasons.
First, insiders often have direct access to various parts of an organization’s most critical data and would not typically be flagged for accessing that data.
Second, a simple error committed by an employee could potentially go unnoticed if they are the ones in charge of specific data handling or communication responsibilities.
Third, because the employee is familiar with the organization’s security controls and processes, a disgruntled employee could easily bypass the security protocols and remain undetected during illicit activity.
Here are a few ways organizations can detect potential threats and get ahead of the issue:
Implement Network and User Monitoring Solutions
In cases of stolen or leaked credentials, it can be hard to detect an active cyber attack or data exfiltration because the hacker has gained access to the organization’s network using legitimate credentials. To counter this, companies must monitor all user activity and network traffic to detect unusual and suspicious behaviors in real time.
User and entity behavior analytics (UEBA) is one type of security solution that uses advanced analytics to quickly identify insider threats by tracking network and user behavior patterns. UEBA immediately flags any behavioral anomalies in the system, such as unapproved user role changes, privilege escalations, or suspicious data access patterns.
To be highly effective, system administrators should consider using UEBA solutions along with IDS (intrusion detection systems), EDR (endpoint detection and response), and SIEM (security information and event management) threat detection solutions.
Implement User Authentication Processes
Authentication processes, such as multi-factor or two-factor authentication, can greatly reduce the potential of a cyber attack from internal or external parties. Implementing authentication helps insider threat detection in three main ways:
- Alerting compromised employees if their credentials are being used without their authorization
- Creating a digital trail to track the point of access in which a system or asset was breached and view which data files were accessed
- Identifying unusual login patterns or failed login attempts
One of the most effective authentication methods is biometric scanning, which scans employees for uniquely-defining characteristics, such as fingerprints, face IDs, or voice signatures, which makes it a much more reliable system for verifying identity.
The most useful authentication methods include:
- Password or code authentication
- Biometric scanning
- Third-party mobile app
- Single sign-on (SSO)
Conduct Security Training and Education for Employees
Building security awareness is one of the best ways to ensure all potential insider threats are identified and reported as quickly as possible. Because many employees are often uneducated on common cyber threats, they may not be able to recognize suspicious activity even as it’s happening in front of their eyes.
Especially when the threat is a behavioral issue and not a digital one that can be tracked, having eyes on the ground level in the employees is one of the best ways to detect insider threats. Additionally, having a channel to report all potential incidents concerning negligent or malicious insider threats allows companies to easily monitor the threats before they become more serious.
How Organizations Can Prevent Insider Threats
Ultimately, insider threat prevention comes from proactive policies that mitigate insider risk and lower the chances of it occurring. Organizations need to set baseline company-wide policies that reinforce strong IT security practices to not only limit the impact of a potential insider attack and data breach but also to prevent it from happening in the first place.
Conduct Employee Screenings
One of the most basic steps to preventing insider threats from happening is to screen employees before hiring or granting permission to access restricted data and systems. This includes thorough background checks and vetting to ensure that the employee has no prior history that could potentially pose a risk to the company.
Some key indicators that should be flagged are:
- Criminal history
- Financial history (debt and payment history)
- Employment history (prior involuntary terminations)
- Social media presence (extreme ideologies or negative associations)
For example, jobs that require security clearances, like government defense contractors or federal administration, must undergo intensive background checks and continuous vetting procedures to ensure that the employee is allowed to access certain tiers of data. Clearances must be renewed periodically to ensure that the employee maintains a minimal level of risk.
If any behaviors or activity are flagged, it doesn’t mean the employee should automatically be labeled as an insider risk. It’s up to the organization to perform its due diligence in monitoring and vetting the employee before making a final decision.
Although most companies won’t require anything as intensive as national security clearances, it is important for companies to fully vet an employee, even if they have a long history with the company, before allowing access to highly sensitive data.
Monitor and Review All Employee Actions
One of the leading causes of cyber attacks and data leaks is human error and negligence. Mistakes can lead to data exposure and without an audit and review policy through the chain of command, mistakes can remain undetected and lead to larger issues.
The best way to prevent insider threats is to implement a policy in which all work performed and actions taken are signed off on and reviewed. This can eliminate accidental or negligent insider risks, especially when critical data is being handled and transmitted.
By instilling a strong communication culture in which all managers, directors, department heads, and executive leadership are consistently in the loop about major projects or events, the chance for at-risk insiders to emerge is slim to none. However, this will also require strong cybersecurity education across the board to ensure all parties are well-informed about common risks and vulnerabilities within the company.
Establish Role-Based Access Control (RBAC) Policies
By limiting employee access to certain systems or assets to only those that absolutely need to access them, organizations can prevent unauthorized access from employees attempting to view data outside their jurisdiction or job roles. The idea of role-based access control (RBAC) or privileged access is to assign specific permissions to certain employees to only access data based on their job responsibilities and requirements.
This also follows the zero-trust model and the principle of least privilege by assuming all employees have the potential to be an insider threat and proactively preventing a worst-case scenario by limiting access.
In addition, access control policies can stop cybercriminals that have stolen the credentials of a current employee by limiting the scope of data the employee is allowed to access. To access different files, it would require the threat actor to steal or obtain multiple sets of credentials and of specific employees to successfully execute a complete data breach, which would be much harder to accomplish.
Audit and Review Security Policies Regularly
Organizations are always changing and growing, so it is not uncommon for security policies to quickly become outdated. Security policies that should be reviewed regularly in relation to insider threats include:
- Reviewing employee screening procedures
- Reviewing incident response plans
- Updating physical security policies
- Conducting system vulnerability tests
- Updating employee cyber awareness training
- Defining IT security team roles and responsibilities
- Ensuring third-party vendors, contractors, and service providers are all meeting minimum security requirements
Incident response plans in particular are especially important in deterring potential insider threats. If a threat has been reported or identified, organizations must act quickly to mitigate and remove the threat to prevent unauthorized access to data or system sabotage. By defining a specific plan of action in response to an insider threat, organizations can prevent the situation from becoming an insider attack.
Encrypt All Data
Assuming that a hacker or malicious insider has successfully infiltrated an organization’s network without being detected, sensitive data that has been encrypted would prevent the insider from viewing or transmitting it. Encrypted data only allows authorized individuals to read the data using an assigned decryption key.
Stolen or intercepted data transmissions would also help organizations detect who accessed the data illegally and see repeated attempts to decrypt the data. As part of the overall security strategy, implementing data encryption for the most critical assets is a major part of an insider threat prevention program.