An insider threat is a security risk that originates from within an organization. It typically involves employees, contractors, vendors, or partners who have access to sensitive information or critical systems. This is unlike external threats, which come from hackers or cybercriminals outside the organization. Insider threats pose a unique mitigation challenge, since they are caused by people who are trusted and have legitimate access to resources.
It is important to understand the nature and scope of insider threats and to increase insider threat awareness for several reasons.
- First, the damage caused by an insider can be far more extensive due to their intimate knowledge of the organization’s systems and processes and their access to a wide variety of resources.
- Second, legacy security measures like firewalls and antivirus software are often ineffective against insider threats, since they were designed to keep attackers out but they do not address the use case of attackers coming from within.
- Third, the cost of an insider attack can be substantial, not just in terms of financial loss but also reputational damage. If the word gets out that an inside employee caused an attack, this could lead to a loss of trust in the company.
- Finally, insider threats can be difficult to detect and prevent, since legitimate resources are used during the attack.
Therefore, organizations must adopt a multi-layered approach to securing from insider threats and for insider threat management. The strategy should include monitoring, preventing, and training. In this article, we provide more information on insider threats and solutions for mitigating the risk of insider threats.
An insider threat is the security risk originating from the individuals within an organization. These could be employees, contractors, vendors, or partners. Insiders who pose a threat usually have access to sensitive data, critical systems, or privileged accounts.
Insider threats can be categorized into two main types: accidental and malicious. Accidental threats occur when an employee unintentionally exposes sensitive data. For example, through an erroneous email or inadequate data handling procedures. Malicious threats, on the other hand, are intentional actions carried out by an insider that are intended to compromise the organization’s cybersecurity. These often occur for personal gain or out of spite.
Insider threats examples of compromising an organization’s cybersecurity could include:
- An employee accidentally sends sensitive information to the wrong person by email.
- A contractor accidentally uploading sensitive files to a public cloud, exposing the data to unauthorized users.
- Employees unintentionally using weak passwords.
- IT staff unknowingly leaving servers unprotected.
- An employee deliberately leaking confidential customer data to a competitor.
- A disgruntled staff member disabling security protocols, making the system vulnerable to external attacks.
Insider threats are a growing concern in the cybersecurity landscape. According to the Verizon DBIR 2023, internal actors account for 19% of breaches. However, despite the common trope of a disgruntled employee, the report finds that inside actors are twice as likely to be responsible for erroneous actions, rather than intentional ones.
Erroneous or malicious, the costs of an insider threat incident are very high. According to the 2022 Ponemon Cost of Insider Threats Global Report, the average annualized cost of employee or contractor negligence is $6.6M. For a criminal or malicious insider it’a $4.1M. The report also found that organizations required an average of 85 days to contain the incident, with more than a third taking more than 90 days.
Other notable statistics on insider threats include:
- The number of internal threats incidents has increased by 44% in the past two years.
- 67% of companies are experiencing 21-40+ insider threat incidents per year.
- 56% of insider threat incidents were caused by a careless employee or contractor.
- 56% of insider threat incidents were caused by malicious or criminal insiders.
- The industries with the highest average activity costs are financial services ($21.25M and professional services $18.65M).
These are all from the 2022 Ponemon Cost of Insider Threats Global Report.
There are a number of factors that can contribute to insider threats, including:
- Financial gain: Some employees are motivated to commit insider threats for their personal profit. This could involve stealing intellectual property, selling customer data, or committing fraud.
- Grudges: Disgruntled employees might commit insider threats as a way of seeking revenge on their employer. This could involve sabotaging systems, deleting data, or leaking confidential information.
- Accidents: However, most insider threats are caused by accidents. For example, careless or innocent employees who accidentally expose sensitive data or who are tricked into phishing attacks.
Detecting and preventing insider threats requires a combination of solutions: technological platforms, organizational policies and processes, and employee training. Here are a number of ways organizations can detect and prevent insider threats:
Employee Training and Awareness
Employee training and awareness programs are one of the most important and effective ways to prevent insider threats, and especially the accidental ones. By conducting workshops, drills and other educational endeavors, employees can learn and understand the types of behaviors that constitute an insider threat and practice how to avoid them. Equipped with this knowledge, they will be able to more successfully refrain from accidentally leaking data on the job. This will also help create broader cybersecurity vigilance and a cautious culture.
Access Control Policies
Implementing strict access control measures and policies, based on the principle of least privilege, ensures that employees only have access to the information necessary for their job functions. This means that even if employees accidentally or maliciously leak data, their scope is limited, which reduces the blast radius of an attack. Role-based access control (RBAC), for example, is an effective method for limiting the scope of access.
LayerX can be used as a mandatory authorization factor to help ensure secure access.
Monitoring and Auditing
Continuous monitoring of network activity can help detect unusual patterns that may indicate an insider threat. For example, if an employee logs on at 3 AM or downloads large volumes of data to their device, this could be cause for concern.
- Tools like User and Entity Behavior Analytics (UEBA) can analyze user behavior and flag anomalies.
- DLP solutions can monitor and control data transfers, preventing unauthorized data leakage.
- EDR solutions can monitor endpoint activities and detect suspicious activities on individual devices, such as unauthorized data transfers or the use of unapproved applications, and can take corrective actions automatically.
- Secure browser extensions like LayerX effectively track, monitor and prevent suspicious user actions, like uploading and pasting of data.
As a best practice, it is recommended to conduct periodic audits of system logs, user activities, and access controls. These audits can help identify any anomalies, and also help identify any gaps or vulnerabilities that need to be addressed. For example, you might discover your employees are using ChatGPT but you have no control over which data they are pasting there.
Incident Response Plan
Having a well-defined incident response plan will enable quick action if an insider threat is detected. This insider threat program should outline the steps to be taken, the personnel involved, and the communication strategies to be employed.
AI and ML
Advanced AI and ML models and algorithms are increasingly being used to detect complex patterns and anomalies that could indicate potential threats. These technologies can sift through vast amounts of data to identify potential threats that might escape traditional monitoring tools.
The risk of insider threats is often overlooked in favor of external threats. However, it can be equally, if not more, damaging. Whether the internally-generated data breach is malicious or inadvertent, the cost and impact could be very high. Proactive measures like employee training, robust access controls, and continuous monitoring can help mitigate these risks.
LayerX is a secure browser extension that prevents the exposure of internal data to ungoverned websites and applications. By granularly monitoring all user actions and singling out activities that introduce risk, LayerX can alert and prevent malicious activities, whether they are intentional or accidental.
LayerX prevents data uploads to unsanctioned and risky web locations, prevents sharing sensitive data to personal SaaS and web applications, and ensures sensitive data is never downloaded from organizational SaaS apps to unmanaged devices or managed devices that don’t meet required security posture standards. When such actions are detected, LayerX either blocks them or alerts users they are about to perform an insecure data interaction. Finally, LayerX provides visibility into data interaction patterns.