Insider Threats: Identifying, Mitigating and Preventing Internal Security Risks in Organizations
One of the most devious and often underestimated dangers in cybersecurity comes from within an organization. These dangers originate from individuals within the organization who have access to sensitive data and systems, making them potentially dangerous adversaries capable of causing significant harm. Understanding, identifying, mitigating, and preventing these internal security risks are paramount for safeguarding an organization’s assets and preserving its integrity.
What is an Insider Threat?
Insider threats are security risks posed by employees, contractors, vendors, or anyone who has access to an organization’s data or systems. Accidental or intentional insiders cause internal threats. An accidental insider could unknowingly cause breaches due to negligence, human error or falling prey to social engineering tactics. For example, an employee clicks on a link in a phishing email, causing a malware infection.
On the other hand, insiders can intentionally engage in data theft, sabotage, or intellectual property theft, driven by motives such as financial gain, revenge or espionage.
A good example took place in May 2022 when a Yahoo employee stole trade secrets after receiving a job offer from The Trade Desk, a competitor. Another example is that of an employee fired from Stradis Healthcare who hacked into the former employer’s network in March 2020 and deleted critical shipping data.
According to the 2023 Insider Threat Report by Cybersecurity Insiders, 74 percent of organizations say insider attacks have become more frequent. The same percentage of organizations also believe they are at least moderately vulnerable to insider threats.
Experts attribute the rise in insider threats to various factors, including the effect of economic instability leading to businesses focusing on revenue growth and leaving gaps in security investments. There also has been an increase in layoffs in the tech industry that can result in disgruntled ex-employees doing damage as they leave the workplace. Overworked employees also might cut corners that create security issues, such as configuration, system access or unused accounts. Insider threats are also made more complex as many organizations migrate their workloads to the cloud, introducing new challenges.
How to Identifying Insider Threats
Insider threats are difficult to detect. However, it helps to look out for compromise indicators such as inappropriate behavior. Here is a more specific list of red flags:
- Unusual access and log in, especially from an insider who doesn’t have certain access rights to data or systems.
- Abnormal network search activity for sensitive information on networks, intranets, databases, or applications.
- Unusual copying or downloading of sensitive information to an unauthorized destination such as email or removable media.
- Misuse of tools, either foreign or installed. Detecting unfamiliar tools on a system is a compromise indicator. However, a savvy insider may even use trusted enterprise tools to execute an attack. In such a case, behavior such as access to a system outside regular working hours or access from unusual locations could indicate a compromise.
- Unwillingness to comply with security policies. Employees who consistently disregard security protocols and policies might pose a risk to the organization’s security.
Mitigating Insider Threats
Proactive measures that can help mitigate insider threats include:
- Employee training and awareness: Conduct regular security awareness and training programs to educate employees about the significance of insider threats and their role in preventing them.
- Role-based access control: Implement a robust access control model that ensures individuals have access to only the resources required for their specific job roles, reducing the potential impact of an insider breach.
- Behavioral analytics: Employ advanced analytics tools to monitor user behavior and detect inconsistencies that could indicate suspicious actions.
- Develop clear exit procedures: these include the revocation of access privileges and retrieval of company-owned devices and sensitive information from employees leaving the organization.
- Continuous monitoring and adaptation: Insider threats keep evolving, necessitating ongoing monitoring and constant adaptation of new security measures.
Preventing Insider Threats
- Conduct comprehensive background checks and verify references during the hiring process to minimize the risk of malicious insiders entering the organization.
- Ensure employees have proficient skills in deploying and managing complex cloud solutions.
- Encourage open communication, foster mutual trust, and support employees to reduce the likelihood of disgruntlement.
- Extend security considerations to contractors, suppliers, and partners with access to the organization’s data or systems.
- Implement endpoint security solutions to monitor and analyze activities on user devices such as workstations or laptops.
While staying alert for cyberattacks from outside is critical, organizations must not forget that the most significant risk can come from inside the business. Even with the most comprehensive cybersecurity defenses against external hackers, failing to create proactive measures for internal security leaves critical assets open to hidden dangers within the organization’s walls.
Organizations such as the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) provide information and resources to assist in developing new or improving existing insider threat mitigation programs.