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What Is an Insider Threat? Malicious vs. Negligent Threats

Posted on Wednesday September 13, 2023

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No one wants to think they have an employee or third party that is an insider threat, but mitigating these risks before they turn into complete attacks is key.

What Is an Insider Threat?

An insider threat is a malicious or negligent individual that is a security risk because they have access to internal information and can misuse this access.

External actors aren’t the only ones who pose risks to an organization’s cybersecurity. An insider threat is a peculiar security risk that originates from within the company, either deliberately or due to human error and carelessness. Hence, the insider threat poses the conundrum that an organization’s biggest assets can also be a source of risk.

What makes insider threats dangerous is the fact it is perpetrated by someone who has a relatively intimate knowledge of the company’s operations and therefore knows the lay of the land.

According to the 2022 Ponemon Cost of Insider Threats Global Report, insider threats have grown by 44% in the past two years alone. In addition, its cost per incident has ballooned up to $15.38 million, now a third of the previous amount.

Who or What Is an Insider?

As its name implies, insider threats arise from users who have legitimate access to an organization’s resources. This often includes information, equipment devices, personnel facilities, network, and system access.

Most often than not, this person is usually an employee, but they can also be a third-party contractor or vendor. In short, anyone who works directly with an organization can pose the risk of being an insider threat.

The following are some examples of insiders:

  • An individual who has been provided with a badge or access device like a contractor, vendor, or partner.
  • An individual in who an organization has placed an implicit amount of trust in, with privileged access to varying degrees of sensitive information.
  • An individual a company has provided some sort of computer and/or network access to.
  • Terminated or resigned employees who still have credentials or enabled profiles.
  • High-privilege users like programmers and software developers with access to data through a staging area or development environment.
  • A vendor or contractor who has some type of exclusive knowledge about an organization’s operations, fundamentals, business strategy, and goals either through providing products, services, or having privileged access to their secrets.
  • A government official or someone working for the government who has access to classified information that has national security implications if compromised.

Types of Insider Threats

Insider threats can come from anyone and from any level of the organization. However, those who perpetrate it successfully often have high-privilege access to data. Insider threats can be divided into two categories based on the intent: those that pose a risk unwittingly and those intentionally being malicious.

1. The careless insider: This activity borders on negligence when the insider unwittingly exposes the organization to outsider threats. These are often the result of unintentional mistakes, the most common of which are falling for phishing attacks or scams that infect the system with malware.Others include leaving misconfigured databases, poor administrative credentials, and improperly disposing of sensitive company documents.

  • The pawn: These are the unknowing group of insiders that have been manipulated and deceived to harm the organization. They are individuals who fall prey to social engineering or email spear-phishing attacks that make them give up their login credentials or click on harmful links that download malicious payloads.
  • The goof: These are insiders who put companies at risk due to their frivolity born out of incompetence, ignorance, or carelessness.

2. The mole: This individual is an imposter who nefariously gains insider status. This person might pose as a vendor, partner, or employee to gain privileged access to the company’s network or premises.

3. The malicious insider: Malicious insiders are the most dangerous category of insider threats. These are often employees, but they can also be contractors, vendors, or partners. They intentionally try to harm their organization by abusing their position either through malicious exploitation, stealing information, misusing data, abusing credentials, destroying data, and/or compromising networks.

  • The collaborator: A subset of the malicious insider is the person who collaborates with outsiders to commit an insider crime. They can partner with their company’s competitors, organized crime groups, or even nation-states. The objective could be to steal customer information, personally identifiable information, trade secrets, business operations, and intellectual property.
  • The lone wolf: These are independent actors who aren’t actively influenced, supported, or controlled by any external parties. These categories of malicious actors are usually dangerous because they are often highly motivated and singularly driven in the pursuit of their goal(s). Because they are confident they can pull off their nefarious acts alone; they are individuals who often have elevated privileges and high levels of access, such as systems administrators.

Why Insider Threats Occur

Most of the time, employees don’t join organizations with the intent to inflict harm on their company. Over time, greed and/or the accumulation of personal grievances, with the desire for revenge, eventually turn some individuals into malicious actors within an organization.

The vendetta of intentional threats is manifested in various ways such as sabotage, espionage, corruption, and theft; and they are most often expressed in hostile cyber acts.

Moreover, a combination of factors has equally heightened the propensity for insider threats to occur. Among these is the increased relevance of information-sharing and distribution of sensitive information, which provides disparate individuals with greater access to critical data.

Insider threats are often surreptitious and not immediately detectable. They can even go on for years because they are notoriously difficult to uncover.

For instance, the Canadian finance company, Desjardins Group had to settle a class-action lawsuit for $201 million. This was because a malicious insider capitalized on the seemingly benign but foolish company process of copying customer data to a shared drive so everyone could use it. The insider copied the data for over two years without detection until 9.7 million records were publicly disclosed.

How Can I Detect Malicious Insiders?

There are no foolproof ways to detect who has the potential of becoming an insider threat to your organization. But insider threat prevention requires marshaling resources to detect the elements that indicate an insider threat is likely imminent or possible.

People as Sensors

People are the first line of defense, especially in the identification and detection of potential insider threats in their fellow colleagues. Employees are more prone to carry out attacks against their employers when they are under a series of stressors. This pressure and stress can make them careless on the job and even grow to become disgruntled employees. Thus, they became prime targets and vulnerable to criminals and foreign agents.

Therefore, it would behoove employers to be on the alert for employees or insiders who exhibit certain concerning behaviors. Detecting and addressing these concerning behaviors early, then providing help, can make the difference between a loyal employee and an insider that commits a harmful act.

Monitoring Insider Activity

In addition to human observation and sensors, technology can also be used to detect vulnerabilities in the system that indicate the potential presence of an insider threat. For instance, if an employee seeks access to documents that have nothing to do with their job function or roles, then the system should be able to flag such activity.

Insider Steps Toward Malicious Activity

Stress may be a contributing factor to an insider threat, but it’s disingenuous to blame it alone for destructive and disruptive acts of sabotage. Those who study insider threats emphasize that its rarely spontaneous, but rather an evolution that moves through several critical pathways:

  1. Grievance and ideation: The disgruntled individual invariably voices their displeasure and anger through speech, writings, and/or disruptive actions.
  2. Preparation: This is the initial composition stage where the individual starts engaging in research and putting a plan in motion to harm the organization.
  3. Exploration: This represents a tipping point in the escalation as the insider starts to actively recruit others into the potential criminal activity.
  4. Experimentation: The individual starts to scope out a plan of action and figure out potential roadblocks they might encounter through reconnaissance, testing, and surveillance.
  5. Execution: The nefarious plan is implemented, and the insider takes advantage of their access to commit a hostile act.
  6. Escape: The insider performs exfiltration to remove sensitive data while attempting to cover up their tracks to evade detection.
     

Who Is at Risk of Becoming an Insider Threat?

It’s essential to identify threat indicators. This helps an organization understand those who are potentially at greater risk of becoming threats. One way to do so is by categorizing potential risk indicators:

  • Personal indicators: This represents a combination of personal stressors and predispositions currently impacting an individual.
  • Behavioral indicators: These are actions and attitudes observed by the person’s co-workers, peers, and supervisors. These behavioral indicators constitute a baseline of behavior, which deviated from, arouse the suspicion of others that something is amiss.
  • Environmental indicators: An organization’s culture, environment, and policies can either contribute, hinder, or curtail an insider threat.
  • Technical indicators: This encompasses a host of system activities that generally require IT systems tools to detect, such as suspicious network activity.
    How to Address the Growing Concerns of Insider Threats
     

To prevent or at least mitigate the possibility of insider threats, organizations should do the following:

  1. Constant, sophisticated monitoring of critical data by performing scans and network analysis.
  2. Institute guardrails to detect abnormal user behavior such as the download of sensitive material.
  3. Deter threats by using layered security techniques such as defense-in-depth, and zero trust to prevent pilfering and abuse of data.
  4. Protect digital assets, critical documents, and intellectual property with up-to-date, cutting-edge security measures.
  5. Predict the likelihood of threat attacks by using threat tools, mechanisms, and algorithms.
  6. React commensurately to threats by simultaneously reducing threat opportunities and increasing the motivation and morale for insiders.

How Digital Guardian Secure Collaboration Can Help You with Insider Threat Prevention

Insider threats present unique challenges to an organization. The first challenge is that they are much more difficult to detect. Unfortunately, most company cybersecurity defenses focus on traditional approaches ill-equipped to handle sophisticated insider threats.

Digital Guardian Secure Collaboration helps you address insider threats quickly. Digital Guardian Secure Collaboration allows you to share files securely and provides you with the type of granular control that mitigates insider carelessness and/or maliciousness. We further bulletproof our solutions with data loss prevention and information rights management defenses.

To learn more about data security and how we can help prevent insider threats, read our data security guide.

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