Cybersecurity Insider Threats Threats

What are Insider Threats?

It’s no secret that insider threats have been, and continue to be, an expensive problem for companies of all sizes in the current hyperconnected marketplace. When all your focus is set on protecting your IT infrastructure from external threats, the cost of not looking inward…

16 minute read

It’s no secret that insider threats have been, and continue to be, an expensive problem for companies of all sizes in the current hyperconnected marketplace. When all your focus is set on protecting your IT infrastructure from external threats, the cost of not looking inward can be dire. A Forbes report citing Ponemon Institute observed that insider threat incidents have grown by 47% since 2020 and are expected to cost affected businesses an average of over $17 million in 2023.

The difficulty in avoiding this kind of cyber-risk can be attributed to the hundreds of endpoints an organization manages and the levels of IT access granted to various collaborators and third-party entities. Also, the time it takes to properly manage an insider threat continues to increase, often extending up to 90 days. If threat incidents are not contained within three months, organizations will likely have to shell out millions in remediation efforts. Employee information and privacy are severely threatened as well.

Needless to say, identifying insider threats is difficult, and curbing the damage they can cause is of utmost importance. While this article covers many facets of how you can safeguard your organization against insider threats, let’s first take a quick look at what this particularly challenging threat means.

What is an insider threat?

As the name suggests, an insider threat is a cybersecurity risk that exists within an IT environment’s security perimeter. It can start from within (from bad actors inside the organization) or be created from an external source that gains access to an insider’s credentials. If undetected, such threats can lead to data breaches, theft of intellectual property (IP) or business strategies, and compromised cybersecurity measures. The risk of losing sensitive data, like employee and customer information, to cybercriminals through such means further jeopardizes the reputation and safety of the organization.

Who is considered to be an inside threat?

Anyone with malintent and who has access to a computer network becomes an insider threat. This includes existing employees, former employees who have not been properly off-boarded, collaborators, third-party vendors or business partners. But beyond that, ANY hacker trying to obtain active credentials from a legitimate user is also an “insider threat.” The bigger the company, the greater the number of insider threats it needs to manage. Larger companies interact — and often share access — with numerous entities, consequently increasing their chances of an insider threat incident. On the other hand, small businesses lack access to the best cybersecurity measures and practices to fend off such threats.

However, for companies of all sizes, discerning who an insider might be is the most challenging task due to the different kinds of insider threats.

Types of insider threats

There are many kinds of insider threats that can affect a business, most of which can be identified when any unusual activity is detected across the network infrastructure. Listed below are different types of insider threats that target an organization’s wireless network, access control, computers and network security.

  • A threat: If you observe an unauthorized wireless connection, unauthorized access to ePHI or CDE, critical patches not applied as scheduled or even a new, high-severity internal vulnerability, you need to act immediately. These are just a few among numerous threats that can lead to data breaches and large-scale cyberattacks.
  • A change: Any changes, like new devices on restricted networks or applications being installed on locked-down systems, are key indicators that an insider is attempting to wreak havoc. Stay vigilant; even an unauthorized printer on the network can be suspicious,
  • An anomaly: Unusual or unexpected login times and multiple user logins by a single desktop user are a few behaviors that constitute anomalous activity.

In general, however, insider threats are categorized as unintentional or malicious. Insider threat actors could fall under either category, depending on the position they hold within, or in relation to, an organization.

What is an unintentional insider threat?

Fueled by no malicious or criminal intent, an unintentional or accidental insider threat is caused by employees who do not carefully follow the IT and security guidelines stipulated by their organization. Such insiders are negligent in how they use corporate systems or handle important data, unwittingly placing their company in harm’s way.

Here are the two main reasons unintentional insider threats arise:

  • Ignorance: Employees that lack the necessary training, experience or judgment in recognizing threats can easily fall prey to scammers that approach them via phishing emails, impersonating upper management or fake websites.
  • Negligence: Human error, ignoring corporate security policies and protocols, and attempting to cut corners in the workflow can lead to data breaches, among many other cyber-risks, that may further result in expensive ramifications.

Even IT teams can accidentally become insider threats due to negligence, which includes overlooking misconfigurations that open up security holes, missing patches, elevating the wrong people with privileges they shouldn’t have and not enforcing their own policies.

Such unintentional insider threats are usually classified as:

  • Pawns: Employees who, unbeknownst to them, are manipulated or talked into carrying out malicious activities by external threat actors or scammers are known as pawns. They may accidentally download malware, share important credentials or fall prey to social engineering scams.
  • Goofs: While these kinds of accidental threat actors do not intend to cause the organization any harm, their actions can be perceived as deliberate and arrogant. Their incompetency to follow the company’s security procedures, such as sharing or storing classified customer information on unauthorized devices, even after being briefed on the consequences of such behaviors, qualifies them to carry this moniker.

What is a malicious insider threat?

A malicious insider threat is any action taken by an existing or former employee, or a threat actor with unauthorized access to an organization’s IT systems, out of self-interest. Here are the most common reasons why an insider intentionally threatens a company:

  • Financial gain: With their privileged access to confidential and business-critical information, a malicious insider can leverage the data and sell it to the highest bidder or even hold it for ransom under an alias. Such attacks can cost companies hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on the quality and kind of information the insider possesses.
  • Emotional gain: It’s not uncommon to hear of disgruntled employees bearing ill will against their companies — most often after being laid off. While many go on their way and find new places of employment, some prefer taking revenge. They use the information on hand and access privileges to compromise the organization’s IT security or damage the business’s reputation.
  • Political gain: Sometimes, insiders seek to gain information that can prove detrimental to the targeted company in more ways than a data breach or regulatory non-compliance would. They seek the information to gain leverage over certain parties within the organization to serve their own agendas.

Now that you understand why an insider would intentionally threaten their organization, let’s examine how each insider is classified.

  • Collaborator: This kind of malicious insider partners up with a business’s competitors, or any other entity, that stands to profit from the damage it incurs. Such threat actors use their privileged access to obtain and sell IPs or any relevant customer information to disrupt the organization’s operations or reputation.
  • Lone wolf: Acting independently, the lone wolf poses a particularly unique intentional threat to their company. They seek to profit from their malicious activities and pose significant risks the higher they climb within the enterprise and gain more privileged access.
  • Compromised insider: When an employee accidentally visits unknown and often unsafe links to malicious websites, they compromise their system without even realizing it. Malicious threat actors can then collect all the credentials and private employee information, like personally identifiable information (PII). They also gain access to sensitive business data that can cause serious damage to an organization.

Insider threat examples

Reading about what an insider threat is and its many kinds is one thing. But to really understand the problem, here are a few real-life examples of how such threats turned into actual breaches and their impact on the affected businesses in the past few years.

Unintentional insider threat example

In what’s known to be one of the biggest cybersecurity attacks in 2020, the attack launched against international hotelier Marriott serves as an ideal case study of an unintentional insider threat victim.

Via the credentials of two Marriott staff members, cybercriminals were able to steal the personal information of over five million guests, including their contact information, loyalty account numbers and gender. They obtained the data by hacking into a third-party vendor application that Marriott used for its guest services. Unfortunately, the third-party vendor had failed to identify a vulnerability within their systems, which eventually paved the way for this massive attack.

Marriott took two months to identify the breach and was subjected to a whopping fine of £18.4 million for failing to comply with the GDPR and exposing their guests to a slew of cyber-risks.

Malicious insider threat example

Poaching employees from an enterprise like Apple is bound to boost your organization’s productivity. But what if two or more of the tech giant’s engineers came with several gigabytes of confidential information?

Rivos Inc., a stealth startup based out of California, allegedly targeted and poached nearly 40 of Apple’s engineers and brought upon themselves a lawsuit for stolen trade secrets.

Rivos sought to gain an edge over Apple in system-on-chip (SoC) technology, and it’s suspected that at least two engineers working on the same project stole confidential information on Apple’s SoC designs. Apple claims to have spent over a decade of research — and billions of dollars — to develop its SoC technology.

Insider threat statistics

With the frequency of such incidents increasing over the years, insider threats have quickly become a serious security concern for companies of all sizes across the globe. It’s interesting to note that insider threat incidents vary depending on the industry.

For instance, according to the Verizon 2021 Breach Investigation Report, the Healthcare and Finance industries suffer the most number of incidents. Companies in these verticals have observed, on numerous occasions, their employees stealing or being careless with corporate assets.

Are insider threats increasing?

The short answer is yes; insider threats are on the rise. As discovered by Tessian’s survey data, 45% of employees save, download and share their work-related documents when leaving the organization for various reasons. That’s a lot of data leaving the safe confines of the organization’s IT infrastructure. Moreover, the number of remote working jobs has also increased, meaning more personal devices gain many access levels. We would be remiss not to mention the growing number of disgruntled IT ex-employees of some of the biggest companies in the marketplace in 2023.

All of these factors point toward an inevitable spike in insider threat incidents.

What is the cost of an insider threat?

The cost of an insider threat caused by negligence alone, in attempts to remedy the situation, averages around $6.6 million. On a global scale, the cost of fixing an insider threat, as recorded by the end of 2022, wasestimated at $15.38 million. Considering the meteoric rise in insider threats, this estimate is only expected to climb. Companies in the finance, healthcare and retail industries need to keep their wits about them.

What percent of breaches are due to insiders?

The Verizon Data Breach Investigations Report 2022 found that insiders constitute about 20% of data breaches.

According to the report, of the 275 recorded security incidents caused by malicious insiders in 2022, 216 were confirmed to have disclosed critical information. Paying close attention to any and all threat indicators can play a crucial role in avoiding this cyber-risk.

Insider threat indicators

There are many insider threat indicators an organization can be weary of and take necessary precautions to improve its risk management capabilities. Implementing insider threat detection tools and practices can help catch several behavioral patterns and other anomalous activity within the system that indicate potential insider threats.

Here are a few examples of insider threat indicators:

  • Unusual work hours: Tracking employees’ working hours can be an excellent place to start. Observe those who stay in the office after their shift has ended and work or access IT systems at odd hours.
  • Abnormal behavior: Employees that begin to act out of the ordinary, talk about quitting their jobs or express their dissatisfaction with the company openly can grow to harbor malicious intent.
  • Suspicious activity or access attempts: Any staff member going out of their way to carry out unusual tasks outside their designated responsibilities ideally stands out as an indicator. It is more suspicious if they begin requesting access to information or systems that otherwise do not concern them.
  • Interpersonal controversy: Caused by any number of stressors in their personal lives, employees that begin to behave aggressively or uncordially toward their peers are a potential malicious threat.
  • Organizational policy disagreements: Employees that blatantly showcase a rebellious attitude toward new changes implemented by the management, and push back, may decide to act against the company’s best interests, becoming malicious insiders.
  • Disregard for security measures: In an attempt to complete their work on time or cut corners for convenience, employees may forget to follow the security measures mandated by their company.
  • Poor or declining performance: Observing how employees perform their roles can help gauge their commitment to the company.
  • Exiting the organization: As expressed with the example of Apple and its 40 ex-employees, those leaving an organization may carry business-critical information for personal gain.

Why is it important to identify insider threats?

Catching an insider threat as quickly as possible can make all the difference when it comes to determining the company’s growth and its workforce’s quality of PII security. One of the most effective ways to avoid potential data breaches, safeguarding IP and securing the IT network revolves around identifying insiders proactively.

Insider threat detection

Many cybersecurity solutions and insider threat detection programs have been rolled out in recent years, each designed to help security teams act against insiders effectively. These detection tools and practices empower organizations to nurture a more vigilant culture among their people. Listed below are a few practices your company can implement to avoid an insider threat incident.

  • Perform risk assessments: Carrying out frequent risk assessments of your organization’s digital assets, confidential business information and employee data, among several other facets of the business, is the ideal first step in detecting an insider threat.
  • Increase visibility: Be forever cautious. Carefully monitor every activity within the scope of your company’s network and discover threats well before they cause any harm.
  • Monitor access requests: Keep an eye out for unexpected or unauthorized access attempts and requests by employees who otherwise would never seek such permissions.
  • Conduct performance reviews: Know your employees. It is important to carry out routine workforce evaluations to gauge their motivations. Moreover, conducting such reviews helps understand their sentiments toward — or expectations of — the company as well.
  • Investigate unusual incidents: Vigilance is key; this cannot be stressed enough. If any activities in your systems seem out of the ordinary, investigate them diligently. Document your findings and create reports for future reference.
  • Insider threat awareness training: Here’s the perfect way to avoid unintentional insider threats. Train employees on the dos and don’ts of IT security as effectively as you can. You can additionally educate them on insider threats and how they can be identified to bolster your organization’s security capabilities.
  • Utilize an insider threat detection tool: Employ the most effective internal threat detection solutions, like Cyber Hawk, to streamline insider threat detection processes. Discover suspicious activity within your company and its network rapidly. Speed is of the essence.

What is the goal of an effective insider threat program?

At the end of the day, securing organizations and their people from any form of security threat is the objective of insider threat programs. They are built to help companies protect their workforce, grow the business and avoid hefty expenditures in fines or remediation efforts after an attack.

How do insider threat programs detect potential and actual insider threats?

Traditionally, detecting potential insider threats required both manual and digital efforts. More recently, however, internal threat detection solutions come equipped with the latest cybersecurity technology and machine learning capabilities to identify irregular or deviant activities. They are extremely quick to distinguish between a potential and an actual threat and automatically begin notifying the concerned security professionals with complete details on the nature of the threat to resolve the issue safely.

Insider threat FAQs

Here are a few frequently asked questions about insider threats that will clarify some queries you may have.

What is not considered an insider threat?

Cyberattacks that target an organization from external sources using brute force and DDoS attacks are not insider threats. Risks and vulnerabilities that do not originate within an enterprise’s systems and are difficult to trace also fall under this category.

What are the three major motivators for insider threats?

To quickly recap, the three primary motivators for an insider typically revolve around financial, emotional and political gain. Compared to the other two, financial gain is the more popular reason insider threats exist.

Are all insider threats malicious?

No. Contrary to how the term sounds, not all insider threats are caused by malicious intent. Many such cyber-risks arise due to the errors or carelessness of employees who often don’t even realize they’ve made a mistake.

What is the most common insider threat?

The most common insider threat, interestingly, is one caused unintentionally due to negligence. They account for over 62% of all insider threat incidents.

Implementing an insider threat detection and alerting system

Now that you understand the dangers of insider threats, the next step is to ensure you do everything you can to stay vigilant and safeguard your organization against insiders of all kinds. You can begin by deploying an insider threat detection and alerting tool.

There are a large class of products called security information and event management (SIEM) tools that tend to super sophisticated systems. They are designed to continually monitor a large array of event logos and detect signs of insider threat activity. The challenge with most of these tools is that they are overly robust, extremely expensive and very complicated. You need highly trained specialists to run them, and they often generate a vast amount of data that becomes difficult to process for most teams.

To address these issues, RapidFire Tools introduced Cyber Hawk, a purpose-built insider threat detection tool created specifically for small businesses and managed service providers to alert them of the most common insider threats.

Cyber Hawk is extremely affordable and can be set up to run with minimal training. Once operational, the system will perform a daily scan automatically and report back with an alert that can be sent to anyone via email or displayed on an online threat management dashboard.

What’s more, the system “gets smarter” over time. It keeps track of each end user to establish trends and benchmarks for their individual behaviors and will sound the alarm when there are suspicious anomalies in those behaviors. It also includes “smart tags,” allowing IT professionals managing the tool to easily stop any “false positive” alerts from repeating.

Learn more about Cyber Hawk today and make internal threat management a breeze.

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