Protecting an organization and its data from a breach or attack can be a daunting task to undertake. There is such a wide range of possible dangers that preventing risks from evolving into active threats is not one job, but a variety of measures, tools, and practices put in place. While preventing attacks from external sources might seem hard enough on its own, it is vital not to forget that threats can come from within an organization as well. Whether they are the result of malicious, negligent, or compromised insiders, internal threats can pose a major danger to a business and its assets.
Defining Insider Threats
An insider threat occurs "when an organization’s trusted users abuse or misuse their access to sensitive information and assets."
Each person with authorized access to any part of an organization – digital or otherwise – is an insider with the potential to cause damage. This includes not only employees, but contractors, partners, custodial workers, repair people, and anyone else who is granted access to the organization’s network, resources, or assets. The most prominent concern is data leakage, as insiders with access to sensitive enterprise data may, either through their intentional or unintentional actions, allow that data to fall into the wrong hands.
There are essentially three different types of insider threats. The first is a malicious insider who, for one reason or another, has chosen specifically to cause damage to their organization from the inside. This is often done for financial gain or personal vendetta, and it covers cases like employees stealing trade secrets to sell to competitors or taking client information when they leave a company. The second type occurs when an insider is either ignorant or negligent of cybersecurity policies and practices and, through action or inaction, accidentally poses a threat. The last type is the compromised insider, which is an external actor gaining access to an insider’s account through phishing or hacking and then using that account to further infiltrate the company.
Detecting and preventing insider threats poses several unique challenges for those looking to protect against possible breaches.
Because insider threats originate from within the company and insiders already have authorized access, traditional threat prevention tactics that scan to detect things like malware or vulnerabilities are not effective. Malicious insiders also have the advantage of knowing their plans in advance and moving first; the highest risk of insider threats is from individuals leaving the company, but an employee is often aware of their plan to leave far prior to putting in notice. They can accumulate data and create accounts over time to avoid suspicion, and only really have to worry about being detected during exfiltration.
Stealing data is not like stealing a physical item: it is much harder, for example, to follow the flow of data and find out where it has passed through and where it has ended up. Users inside an organization engage with data in a myriad of different ways, including copying it to another document, collaborating with other users, and sharing files between users. This makes it difficult to pinpoint or keep track of insiders who are engaging with data in a suspicious manner. Many of the actions that lead to a data breach can blend in with normal and necessary user behaviors, and it is impossible to fully restrict user access without hindering business operations.
Protecting Your Business
Due to the dynamic and multitudinous nature of insider threats, defending against them is not a straightforward solution.
Utilizing the principle of least privilege ensures at minimum that nobody is exposing, either intentionally or inadvertently, data that they don’t need to have access to in the first place. It is also vital to implement sufficient cybersecurity training so that all employees are trained in best practices and organization policies. Employees at all levels should understand their important role in ensuring the security of the company and its data, rather than simply completing the required training and forgetting all about it.
It is crucial to properly vet all partners and contractors before allowing them access to organization assets, as well as managing access so former employees and others who once had insider access aren’t allowed that access in perpetuity. It is also important to be aware of where your data is stored and who has access to which sensitive areas, so that any potential breach might be easier to trace back to its origin. Finally, utilizing the right tools and solutions for your business goes a long way; security executives and security teams should understand the specific needs and capabilities of the business and employ solutions to fill in the gaps.
While insider threats are complicated and can pose a variety of challenges for security teams, they are not impossible to guard against. Understanding the different kinds of insider threats and where they come from is an important step in preventing attacks and breaches from within your organization. Employees, contractors, partners, and other insiders must be informed as to how their actions and practices can cause serious damage to the company if they aren’t careful, and security teams should research solutions to find what works best for the organization.
PJ Bradley is a writer on a wide variety of topics, passionate about learning and helping people above all else. Holding a bachelor’s degree from Oakland University, PJ enjoys using a lifelong desire to understand how things work to write about subjects that inspire interest. Most of PJ’s free time is spent reading and writing. PJ is also a regular writer at Bora.
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