Insider Threats: How to Protect Your Business and Data From the Enemy Within
Forget cybercriminals, viruses, malware and ransomware. The threats that originate from within your organization are far more dangerous than external threats. “But how?” you may ask. Insider threats are much harder to detect and prevent since they are well aware of your organization’s security check gates, defense mechanisms and vulnerabilities. What’s worse is they have legitimate access to your business’ critical data and systems.
According to Cybersecurity Insiders’ 2021 Insider Threat Report, almost all organizations (98%) surveyed said they feel vulnerable to insider attacks. The number of insider attacks that occurred in 2021 indicate that these threats are on the rise. However, many organizations are still ill-equipped to mitigate the risks they pose. The report also revealed that nearly 50% of organizations can’t detect insider threats or can only detect them after the damage has been done.
This article will shed light on what exactly an insider threat is, the three types of insider threats you must watch out for and how to efficiently protect your critical data against insider attacks.
What is an insider threat?
An insider threat, as the name suggests, is a security risk posed by insiders from within an organization. Insiders can be anyone — individuals that your organization trusts, and who either have or earlier had authorized access to your company’s resources, including mission-critical data, intellectual property, financial information and systems, to name a few.
The Cyber and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) defines insider threat as “the threat that an insider will use his or her authorized access, wittingly or unwittingly, to do harm to the Department’s mission, resources, personnel, facilities, information, equipment, networks or systems.”
What are the three types of insider threats?
Insider threats can be either intentional or unintentional. Based on the nature of the risks they present, insider threats can be classified into three types:
A malicious insider in an individual who intentionally misuses authorized access to steal vital information for personal or financial gain. A malicious insider is also known as a turncloak. It can be an individual holding a grudge against a company, seeking revenge against an employer, or an opportunist simply looking to make a quick buck by selling trade secrets to a competitor. A malicious insider can be a current or ex-employee, business partner, contractor, vendor and so on. A malicious insider threat refers to the conscious effort to steal or destroy information or compromise an organization’s network and systems.
A careless or negligent insider is an individual who unintentionally puts an organization at risk, either through his/her action or inaction. For example, leaving the device without logging out or failing to apply a security patch. This type of insider threat may also result from human error such as accidental disclosure of sensitive information, sending email to the wrong person, clicking on a malicious link or downloading a malware-infected attachment.
A mole is an outsider who technically works for someone else but manages to enter the target organization. An organization may hire a mole to spy on its competitor. A mole conceals its real identity and pretends to be an employee, partner or vendor to gain privileged access to critical information, network or systems. A mole targets specific information, intellectual property or trade secrets from the target company at the request of its employer.
What causes insider threats?
There are several reasons that could motivate an insider or turn an employee from loyal to rogue. Personal and financial gain are the most common motivations behind malicious insider threats. A malicious insider may also be motivated by revenge, reputation damage, espionage, strategic advantage, professional gain or competitive interests.
What are indicators of insider threats?
Compared to external threats, insider threats are often harder to detect because insiders have valid access and are aware of the organization’s security policies and procedures. Even with security systems in place, distinguishing between normal and malicious actions can be difficult. However, there are certain tell-tale signs that could indicate a malicious insider threat.
You must keep an eye on these behavioral indicators to be able to spot insider threats in your organization:
- If an employee, contractor or associate is dissatisfied, unmotivated or shows unusually excessive enthusiasm.
- Regularly works beyond normal office hours.
- Violates company policies frequently.
- Discusses new job opportunities or is contemplating switching jobs.
- Shows resentment toward colleagues.
- Negative attitude toward the company.
Apart from behavioral indicators, you must also track digital indicators that could help identify potential threats before they cause any damage. Some of these are:
- Signing in at odd hours. For example, an employee logging in to the corporate network at 3 am without authorization.
- Uploading/downloading large volumes of data.
- Attempting to access resources that he/she is not permitted to.
- Attempting to access resources that are not relevant to his/her role or job function.
- Using unauthorized devices or storage mediums like external hard drives or USB drives.
- Emailing confidential company data to a personal email or to an outsider.
Examples of insider threats
Insider threat is not a new concept. Several insider threat incidents take place every year, yet few are publicly disclosed. Listed below are some examples of insider threats that you can learn from by examining them.
In 2021, a former Ubiquiti engineer allegedly stole the company’s confidential data and attempted to extort the employer for approximately $2 million. The malicious insider was arrested and charged with stealing data and trying to extort money for personal gain.
The Twitter cybersecurity incident in 2020 is a fine example of careless/negligent insider threat. The threat actors pretended to be from Twitter’s Information Technology department. They called consumer service and tech support staff and instructed them to reset their passwords. While many employees reported the suspicious matter to the security team, a few employees fell victim to the phishing scam and gave away their login credentials.
In 2018, Facebook (now Meta) dismissed a security engineer who allegedly exploited his position to access privileged information to stalk women online.
How can internal threats be prevented?
Tracking and protecting against insider threats can be challenging. That being said, here are some steps you can take right now to reduce the risk of insider attacks:
- Secure your mission-critical assets: Identify the critical assets that your company possesses. These assets include sensitive data, people, systems, enterprise networks, facilities, intellectual property and proprietary software, to name a few. Once you identify these assets, prioritize them based on criticality.
- Enforce policies: Formulate comprehensive organizational security policies and procedures, and clearly document them. This will provide clarity on the rights and duties each one has with regard to security best practices, handling critical assets and sharing sensitive information.
- Implement a zero trust model: With insider threats becoming a growing menace, the traditional “trust but verify” method is no longer a viable security strategy. Zero trust is a cybersecurity method wherein everyone, including C-level executives, must be authenticated, authorized and validated before accessing the corporate network. This ensures only authorized personnel and devices can access critical resources and data.
- Enforce least privilege access: Least privilege is another cybersecurity concept where users are provided with minimum levels of access — to applications, systems or data — required to perform their day-to-day tasks. This helps improve data security as well as minimize the impact of a breach in the event a user account is compromised.
- Train your employees: Humans are bound to make mistakes, regardless of whether all the necessary security controls in place. Conducting regular cybersecurity training and awareness programs in your organization can go a long way towards significantly reducing the risk of insider threats. Train your employees to spot phishing emails by sending fake phishing emails after regular intervals.
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When it comes to insider threats, anyone can be a malicious insider, and any company can have one within.
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