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Insider Threat: Meaning, Types and Protection Against It

  • Sangita Kalita
  • Jul 28, 2022
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"Insider threats are not viewed as seriously as external threats, like a cyber attack. But when companies had an insider threat, in general, they were much more costly than external incidents."

-Larry Ponemon


Insider threats are not a recent issue, but the COVID-19 epidemic, escalating geopolitical tensions, and the reality of the contemporary workforce have been making matters worse. Identifying and mitigating insider risks is made significantly more difficult by remote employment, higher employee turnover, and a polarised political environment. 


To make matters worse, ransomware gangs have been seducing insiders more and more by offering them huge sums in exchange for their access to a victim organisation. In this blog, you will learn more about insider threats.


What is an Insider Threat?


Any risk to a company's cybersecurity that comes from within is referred to as an insider threat. In most cases, it happens when a current or former employee, contractor, vendor, or business partner who has valid user credentials abuses their access to the damage of the organization's networks, systems, and data.


An insider threat may be carried out knowingly or unknowingly. Regardless of the motive, compromised enterprise systems and data confidentiality, integrity, and availability are the final outcome.


The majority of data breaches are caused due to insider threats. The organization is vulnerable to attacks from within when traditional cybersecurity strategies, policies, processes, and systems are focused primarily on external threats. It is challenging for security experts and apps to discern between legitimate and malicious activity because the insider already has access to data and systems.


Due to their expertise with company systems, processes, procedures, policies, and users, malicious insiders have a clear advantage over other types of malicious attackers. The vulnerabilities present in various system versions are well known to them. Therefore, organizations must treat insider risks with at least the same rigor that they treat outside threats.


Also Read | Everything About Cybersecurity Threats, Attacks and its Types 


Characteristics of an Insider Threat


Common characteristics of an insider threat are given below.


  1. Involves a person who has some kind of inside information about or access to an organization


The most frequent insider threat sources are employees, but insiders can also include contractors, vendors, interns, board members, and anybody else with access to non-public areas of the organization.


  1. Challenging to avoid 


Security controls that are aimed at external actors will not be applicable because the threat, by definition, originates from within the organization. For instance, an insider threat who is already on the company network cannot be stopped by a firewall from gaining access to it.


  1. Difficult to Detect


Insiders need some degree of privileged access to carry out their duties, but it's frequently challenging for technology to determine precisely how an insider is utilizing that access. 


An employee might download a document to share with a competition or to review on a transatlantic journey. Simple access control won't be able to distinguish between the two goals.


  1. Often has a strong motivation


There is frequently a very compelling reason for an insider threat. A person who feels they were unfairly fired, for instance, can harbor resentment toward their previous employer. In the worst circumstances, persons motivated by ideology may already have malicious intentions in mind before seeking a job at a corporation.


Also Read | What is Attack Surface Management?


Sectors at Risk of Insider Threats


While insider threats can affect any business, some sectors are more likely to encounter major or regular events than others:


  1. Healthcare


More reported insider assaults than any other industry, according to Verizon's 2019 Insider Threat Report, were committed by healthcare firms. 


Another Verizon study showed that healthcare was the only business in which insiders were responsible for a greater share of breaches than external threat actors, though some of this could be explained by the sector's unique obligatory reporting requirements.


  1. Financial Services


According to research by the Ponemon Institute, the financial sector spends more than any other on reducing, analyzing, and addressing insider threat concerns. Strangely, anecdotal data suggests that many insider attacks in the finance sector are really driven by resentment.


  1. Manufacturing


Numerous research and surveys on malicious insider threats have identified the manufacturing industry as a particularly noteworthy victim. Malicious insiders have proven to be especially drawn to the confidential information used in a number of crucial manufacturing processes.


  1. Aerospace and Defense


The most harmful insider threat instances have occurred in crucial industries like aerospace and defense. In the past, political insiders, advanced nation-state efforts, and economic espionage have all been involved.


  1. Government and Academia


Increased insider threat awareness within the federal government has been a recent focus for organizations like CISA, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the FBI. However, public organizations of all sizes continue to be exposed to various insider threat categories.


Additionally, research from the Ponemon Institute, as mentioned above,  demonstrates a correlation between insider threat incident frequency and headcount of an organization, with North American businesses appearing to be the most frequent targets.


Also Read | Types of Security Events and Event Logs


Types of Insider Threats


The different types of Insider Threats are given below :

The image shows the Types of Insider Threats which include Malicious Insider Threats like Collaborator and Lone Wolf, Careless Insider Threats like Pawn and Goof and lastly Mole

Types of Insider Threats


  1. Malicious Insider Threats


Malicious insider threats, sometimes known as turncloak, have as their main objectives sabotage, fraud, intellectual property theft, and espionage. They willfully misuse their privileged access to steal data or damage systems for nefarious, selfish, or commercial purposes. 


Examples include a worker who sells private information to a rival or a dissatisfied ex-contractor who installs harmful malware onto the network of the company.


Collaborators or lone wolves are types of Malicious Insider Threats that pose a threat from within.


  • Collaborator


Authorized users who actively hurt the organization with the help of a third party are known as collaborators. The third party could be a rival company, a state, a group of organized criminals, or a single person. The collaborator's behavior could cause sensitive data to leak or corporate operations to be disrupted.


  • Lone Wolf


Lone wolves don't let anyone or anything control them; they make all of their own decisions. They can be particularly hazardous because they frequently have access to privileged systems like database administrators, for example.



  1. Careless Insider Threats


Insider security threats that are careless can happen accidentally. Human error, bad judgment, unintended aid and abetting, convenience, phishing (and other social engineering techniques), malware, and stolen credentials are frequently to blame. Unknowingly exposing enterprise systems to external assault, the person involved.


Careless insider threats could be pawns or goofs.


  • Pawn 


Pawns are legitimate people who have been persuaded to accidentally act criminally, frequently via the use of social engineering strategies like spear phishing. They might unintentionally download malware to their computer or reveal private information to a fraudster.


  • Goof


Goofs intentionally do potentially dangerous things but have no malice in their hearts. They are users who lack awareness of the significance of adhering to security policies and procedures and are either conceited, illiterate, or incompetent. A fool could be a user who stores private client information on a personal device despite being aware that it is against company policy.


  1. A Mole


An outsider who has acquired access to the organization's systems is referred to as a mole. In order to get privileged authorization that they would not otherwise be eligible for, they may pretend to be a vendor, partner, contractor, or employee.


Also Read | Security Misconfiguration and Vulnerability Management



Detection and Protection against an Insider Threat


Detection of Insider Threats


While paying little attention to the actions of authorized individuals who might take advantage of their privileged access, the majority of threat intelligence technologies concentrate on the analysis of computer, network, and application data. You need to keep an eye out for unusual behaviour and digital activity if you want to build a robust cyber defence against an insider attack.


  1. Behavioural Indicators


There are several different signs of an insider threat to watch out for, including:


  • An unhappy or unsatisfied partner, vendor, contractor, or employee.
  • Attempts made to get over security.
  • Frequently working after hours.
  • Demonstrates animosity against coworkers.
  • Routinely breaking organizational rules.
  • Pondering a resignation or talking about potential job opportunities.


  1. Digital indicators


  • Entering networks and applications for businesses at odd hours. Consider an employee who signs into the network at 3am without being asked, for example.
  • Increase in the amount of network traffic. You will observe unexpected surges in network traffic if someone is attempting to replicate a significant amount of data over the network.
  • Gaining access to resources they don't typically use or aren't allowed to.
  • Accessing information that is unrelated to their work function.
  • Persistent demands for access to system resources that are unrelated to their duties.
  • Using illicit tools, like USB drives.
  • Network crawling and targeted search for private data
  • Sending confidential information via email to a third party.


Also Read | What is Cloud Security?


Protection Against Insider Attacks


Digital assets within your company can be secured against internal threats. Some ways of protection against Insider Threats are given below.


  1. Safeguard Vital Assets


Decide which logical and physical assets are most important to your company. Networks, systems, private information (such as customer and employee information, employee details, schematics, and comprehensive strategic plans), physical assets, and personnel are some examples. 


Learn about each important asset, evaluate its priority level, and assess how well it is currently protected. The maximum level of security against insider threats should, of course, be provided for the assets with the highest priority.


  1. Identify the Baseline of Typical User and Device Behaviour


There are numerous software programmes available that can monitor insider risks. In order for these systems to function, user activity data must first be centralised. 


To do this, access, endpoint, account change, authentication, and virtual private network (VPN) logs are used. Utilise this information to create models and assign risk scores to user behaviour associated with particular occurrences, such as the downloading of private information to portable media or a user's unusual login location. 


For every person, device, job function, and job title, establish a baseline of typical behaviour. Disturbances can be detected and looked into using this baseline.


  1. Heighten awareness


More than one-third of participants in a 2019 SANS survey on advanced threats acknowledged having limited visibility into insider misuse. Therefore, it's crucial to implement systems that continuously track user behaviour as well as compile and correlate data on activity from various sources. 


You could, for example, utilise cyber deception tools that set up traps to entice bad actors inside, follow their actions, and decipher their motivations Other enterprise security solutions would then use this data to identify and stop any ongoing or upcoming attacks.


  1. Implement Policies 


The organisation's security policies should be defined, documented, and distributed. By doing so, uncertainty is avoided and the proper framework for enforcement is created. 


No employee, contractor, vendor, or partner should be uncertain about what conduct is appropriate in relation to the security policy of their firm. They should understand that it is their duty to keep confidential information private from outsiders.


  1. Encourage culture change


While identifying insider risks is crucial, it is more sensible and cost-effective to discourage users from bad behaviour. Promoting a culture shift toward security awareness and digital transformation is crucial in this regard. Instilling the proper attitudes and ideas can aid in overcoming carelessness and addressing the causes of malevolent behaviour. 


Employees and other stakeholders should regularly take part in security awareness and training that informs them of security issues. This should be done in conjunction with ongoing employee satisfaction measurement and improvement to detect early warning signs of discontent.


Internal threats are more challenging to spot and defend against than exterior threats. They frequently slip past the traditional cybersecurity measures like firewalls, detection systems, intrusion and antimalware software. 


Security alarms are unlikely to be set off by an attacker who logs in using an authorised user ID, IP address, password, and device. Your digital assets need to be properly protected, therefore you need insider threat detection software and a strategy that combines a variety of techniques to keep an eye on insider activity while reducing the likelihood of false positives.

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