What are insider threats in cybersecurity?

This article explores the challenge of tackling the cybersecurity threats posed by people inside your organisation.


A definition of insider threats

An insider threat refers to the potential risk posed by individuals within your organisation who have privileged access to sensitive information. 

These individuals may include employees, contractors, or business associates who could, intentionally or unintentionally, compromise your organisation's security by deliberately exploiting their insider access or having that access inadvertently exploited.

Insider threats can manifest in various forms, making them a formidable challenge for cybersecurity professionals.

The three types of insider threat

Malicious Insiders: Individuals who intentionally misuse their access for personal gain, revenge, or to harm the organisation. This most often takes the form of:

  • Financial Fraud: An employee with access to your financial systems who intentionally manipulates records for personal gain, embezzling funds or diverting them into their accounts.
  • Sabotage: For example, an IT administrator with a grudge against your company who deliberately disrupts critical systems or wipes important data.

Negligent Insiders: These are typically employees who inadvertently compromise security through carelessness, lack of awareness, or a failure to follow your security protocols.

  • Phishing victims: An employee who falls for a phishing email, unknowingly providing sensitive login credentials that open the door for attackers to access your company's systems.
  • Unsecured devices: Employees who leave their laptop or smartphone containing sensitive information unattended, leading to potential data exposure.

Compromised Insiders: Employees whose credentials or systems have been compromised by external agents, turning them into unwitting accomplices.

  • Credential theft: An external hacker might get access one of your employee's login credentials through a cyberattack, allowing them to infiltrate your organisation's network undetected.
  • Ransomware Infection: An employee unknowingly downloads malware, enabling external actors to encrypt critical files and demand a ransom for decryption keys.

Remember! Not all insiders are on your payroll. 

Suppliers, contractors, vendors and other external parties with some level of privileged or inside access can be just as dangerous as employees with the same permissions.

Examples of real insider threats

Let's examine some real stories to see how insider threats can cause serious problems. 

One famous case involves Edward Snowden, who worked for the National Security Agency (NSA). In 2013, Snowden shared secret data and documents exposing global surveillance programs. Whether you agree with his whistleblowing motives or not, the incident showed how a person with inside access can harm security and trust by accessing sensitive information.

In the financial world, a Bank of America employee stole customer information and sold it to criminals who then committed fraud on customers. This breach affected thousands of clients and cost the bank $10 million to rectify, highlighting the danger of insiders with access to important data. 

Recently, a worker at a large hospital in the United States looked at patient records without permission - a major privacy breach that led to the organisation having to contact 2530 patients about the possibility that sensitive information about them had been illegally viewed. 

Closer to our London home, a BUPA UK employee stole more than half a million customer records, and then proceeded to try to sell this private data on the Dark Web for financial gain. As a result, BUPA, the UK-based private medical firm, was fined £175,000 for their failure to control the situation properly.

These examples show us that insider threats are not just theoretical—they happen in real life and can cause significant harm. And whilst that harm can be easily quantified by fines alone, the damage to reputations and careers can’t be underestimated.

Companies lose customers, and people get fired when data gets misused. That's why you need to take steps to prevent and address these threats through good cybersecurity practices.

Three ways you can detect an insider threat

Here are the main strategies you can use to discover whether an insider is doing things they shouldn’t with data they shouldn’t be accessing:

  1. User Behavior Analytics (UBA): Use advanced analytics to monitor and analyse your users’ behaviour, identifying deviations from normal patterns.

  2. Anomaly detection: Deploy tools that detect unusual activities, such as large data downloads, access to unauthorised resources, or login attempts from unfamiliar locations.

  3. Auditing and monitoring: Regularly audit and monitor user activities, and ensure that suspicious behaviour is promptly investigated.

How to avoid insider threats in cyber security

Detecting problems is important, but prevention is better than a cure. Here’s how to stop insider misbehaviour.

Employee training and awareness: Educate employees about cybersecurity risks, best practices, and the consequences of negligent behaviour.

Access control: Implement the principle of least privilege, granting employees only the minimum access required for their job roles.

Regular audits and reviews: Conduct routine audits of user privileges, reviewing and updating access permissions as necessary.

Security policies and procedures: Establish and enforce comprehensive security policies, clearly outlining acceptable use, data handling, and reporting procedures.

Focus on insiders as part of your cyber security strategy

A robust cybersecurity framework not only protects sensitive data but also safeguards the reputation and financial well-being of your business and your customers. The cost of a cyberattack, in terms of financial losses and damaged trust, can be significant. 

The reputational cost is even greater if it’s an inside job.

Understanding, detecting, and preventing insider threats are therefore integral components of a comprehensive cybersecurity strategy. By staying informed and implementing proactive measures, you can fortify your defences against the ever-present risk of insider threats.

In an era where digital transformation is the norm, careful investment in cybersecurity measures is therefore an essential aspect of risk management. From restricting access, to monitoring data flows and training employees, a proactive approach to cybersecurity is crucial for staying one step ahead of potential threats.


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