Insider Threat Detection: What You Need to Know

By Aidan Simister, CEO of Lepide [ Join Cybersecurity Insiders ]

Insider threats are a growing concern for organizations of all sizes and industries, and can be both intentional and unintentional, resulting in significant consequences for the organization’s data, finances, and reputation. Organizations face a significant threat from within their own ranks, where a current or former employee, partner, contractor, or vendor can compromise sensitive data, whether intentional or unintentional, and potentially working with others to achieve their goal.

What are Insider Threats?

Insider threats are attacks on an organization’s systems and data by individuals who have authorized access to the network. These threats can be categorized into three types: malicious insiders, who deliberately misuse their access rights; negligent insiders, who inadvertently cause security breaches due to carelessness or lack of awareness; and adversaries with stolen credentials, who use stolen credentials to access an organization’s systems.

Insider threats can take many forms, including malicious activities such as stealing sensitive data, sabotaging systems, or collaborating with external attackers. Negligent insiders may fail to secure sensitive data, make phishing mistakes, or fail to follow security policies. Adversaries with stolen credentials may use stolen credentials to access systems, deploy malware, or steal data.

To detect insider threats, organizations must collect, consolidate, and analyze vast amounts of event data. User behavior analytics (UBA) can help establish baselines of normal user behavior and flag true threats.

The Modern Workplace and Insider Threats

The modern workplace has undergone a significant shift, with the majority of employees now working remotely or in a hybrid environment. As a result, securing company data and applications has become a top priority. Insider threats are particularly concerning, as they can be difficult to detect and resolve, with an average cost of $179,209 to contain the consequences of an insider threat. All organizations are vulnerable to insider threats, regardless of size or industry. Small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) are particularly at risk due to their limited resources and expertise.

Types of Insider Threats

There are several types of insider threats that organizations must be aware of. These types include:

The disgruntled employee

The disgruntled employee is a threat to the organization who wants to harm the organization by destroying data or disrupting business activity. These employees may be motivated by personal issues, a sense of injustice, or feeling left out of the organization’s decision-making process. They may use their access to sensitive information and systems to cause harm, making it essential for organizations to monitor and address employee dissatisfaction and potential issues.

The malicious insider

The malicious insider is an employee who steals data for personal gain. This can include intellectual property, financial information, or sensitive user data. Insiders may be motivated by financial gain, revenge, or a sense of power and control. It is crucial for organizations to implement robust security measures and monitor employee behavior to prevent or detect insider threats.

The feckless third party

The feckless third party is a business partner who compromises security through negligence, misuse, or malicious access. These partners may be unintentionally exposing their organization to security risks, such as poorly configured networks, inadequate access controls, or weak passwords. Organizations must ensure that their third-party partners are following best practices and adhering to security standards to minimize the risk of a security breach.

Behavioral Indicators of Insider Threats

Unusual behavior is often a sign of an insider threat, which can manifest in various ways. Suspicious activity, such as account lockouts, multiple failed logon attempts, or attempts to transfer large volumes of data outside the network, can be a red flag. Additionally, behavior that is unusual for a particular individual or group, such as accessing sensitive data or resources outside of normal working hours or from unusual locations, can also indicate a potential insider threat.

Below are 10 of the most common indicators of insider threats:

1. Financial distress: When employees are struggling financially, they may be more vulnerable to temptation and may compromise company systems for personal gain.

2. Workplace tensions: Conflicts with management or colleagues can lead to disgruntled employees seeking revenge by targeting the company’s systems or data.

3. Unusual access requests: Sudden and excessive requests for access to sensitive information or documents can be a sign of an insider threat.

4. Employment history: Employees who have a history of frequent job changes or significant gaps in their employment history may be more likely to engage in insider threats.

5. Suspicious data transfers: Unusual or excessive exporting of documents and files to personal devices can indicate a potential insider threat.

6. Insufficient device security: Using personal devices for work purposes without proper security measures in place can create a vulnerability to insider threats.

7. Unusual work hours: Suspicious activity outside of regular working hours can be a sign of an insider threat.

8. Isolated behavior: Employees who exhibit unusual behavior when they are alone in the workplace or away from the norm can be indicative of an insider threat.

9. Anomalous network activity: Unusual network traffic or searches can be a red flag for potential insider threats.

10. Excessive file viewing: Frequent and unusual viewing of sensitive files and documents can be a sign of an insider threat.

Mitigating the Risks of Insider Threats

To mitigate the risks of insider threats, organizations must implement several measures. One is to use a User Behavior Analytics (UBA) solution to help manage and secure access to sensitive data, systems, and accounts. Additionally, implementing the Principle of Least Privilege (PoLP) can help prevent insiders from accessing sensitive information they don’t need. It is also essential to manage and secure privileged credentials, monitor and audit privileged access, and educate employees on cybersecurity best practices. Having tools in place to help investigate and recover from insider threats is crucial. Additionally, providing regular cybersecurity training to employees and promoting a culture of cybersecurity awareness can help prevent insider threats from occurring.

NOTE: Insider threat detection and prevention is not just the responsibility of IT cybersecurity teams. Everyone in the organization, including business users, leadership teams, and IT teams, must work together to reduce the risk of insider threats.

Insider threats remain a significant concern for many organizations, as they can be challenging to identify and address without the necessary tools and expertise. It is crucial that companies prioritize securing their most valuable assets, including privileged accounts, systems, and data.


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