Insider threat—a malicious actor whose activities can harm the organization it works for or is associated with—is often neglected and ignored as a critical form of cyber-attack. Many organizations prioritize external threats; however, insider threat is a growing concern and should be appropriately addressed.
This article provides an understanding of the different types of insider threats that may arise within an organization and outlines the steps that can be taken to prevent insider threats from occurring.
Types of Insider Threats
An insider threat is a cybersecurity risk that originates from within an enterprise; an individual with access to a company’s inside information regarding the computer systems, data, and security practices put in place. All harmful actions resulting from internal knowledge and access are considered an insider threat. They include digital fraud, theft of highly sensitive data, or unauthorized disclosure of intellectual property. Malicious insiders have legitimate credentials that they decide to abuse based on diverse motivations, such as profit-making, revenge, and/or espionage.
Insider threats usually have access to accounts used to accomplish various objectives. These may include work email accounts or access to a business’ Enterprise Resource Planning system. These insiders may abuse the privileges and grant permission to cause harm to a company. Additionally, insiders are aware of an enterprise’s confidential intellectual property and the measures implemented to ensure their security. As such, they can more easily circumvent the enforced security controls. Moreover, insiders have physical proximity to data. This means that they can choose which data to access and use for malicious intents, as opposed to external attackers who must first hack into a system.
Accidental and Unintentional Insiders
It is important to note that insider threats are not exclusively malicious in nature. Insider threats can also be caused by unintended actions by employees who make mistakes that hackers exploit to compromise corporate systems. This second category constitutes accidental or unintentional happenings caused by a lack of awareness and negligence of employees, contractors, or board members, such as:
- Using weak passwords
- Sharing passwords with others
- Using similar passwords for different accounts
- Connection to unsecured and public wi-fi while accessing business applications
- Using corporate and personal devices without access controls
- Falling for phishing attempts
Identifying Insider Threats
Monitoring Interactions with Data
Continuously monitoring insider communications and how they interact with data can help spot insider threats. Insiders often exhibit a change of normal patterns in relation to communicating and data interaction once they become a threat. Monitoring interactions identifies behavioral red flags in specific users. For instance, a user who suddenly shows interest in company financial data but works in the HR department can be an indicator of an insider threat. Also, utilizing automated systems can assist companies to detect outliers who might be possible insider threats. Most automated systems use machine learning to learn user behaviors and raise alerts if normal behavior deviates.
Change is Always Welcome
Many insider threats go unnoticed when employees hold only positions for prolonged periods of time. Most threats are only discovered once the culprits go on holiday or when they stop working for a company. To ensure the timely detection of insider threats, all businesses should consider the following:
- Periodically rotating employees whose responsibilities require handling of confidential data
- Enforce separation of duties and policies for processes where there are sensitive functions
- Require employees to take mandatory vacations to ensure none are using their work hours to cover up their malicious threats
Be Conversant with the Indicators of an Insider Threat Compromise
In many instances, businesses are unable to recognize insider threats due to the ignorance of insider threat indicators. To ensure the detection of all threats, companies should be aware of the common data sources and how they can determine the presence of an insider threat.
Mitigating Insider Threats
Enterprises should enforce thorough checks on a candidate’s background before hiring them. This is a simple measure that involves contacting former employers or conducting a person search through open-source intelligence.
Continuous Discovery of Employee Behavior
It is vital to monitor employee behavior while accessing and handling organizational data. Such observation can identify training and user awareness gaps that a business can focus on before malicious actors exploit them to cause potential harm.
Strict Access Controls
Strict access control measures effectively reduce cyber threats. In this case, an organization should assign the least privileges to insiders to minimize the chances of exploitation. Organizations must enforce a strict user access policy that requires the use of strong passwords, prohibits credential sharing, encourages the use of different passwords for each user account, and promotes the application of two-factor authentication for accessing critical information infrastructure.
User Awareness Training
Enterprises should educate their insiders about cybersecurity threats and the techniques that malicious actors use to exploit vulnerabilities. Train your users about the best security measures and their responsibilities regarding safeguarding the business. This measure eliminates unintentional and ignorant behavior that poses potential attacks.