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What is an Insider Threat? Definition, Types and Examples

Danny Murphy
| Read Time 9 min read | Updated On - January 25, 2024

What is an Insider Threat

In this article, we delve into the precise definition, diverse types, and poignant examples that highlight the significance of the pervasive insider threat. Reports suggest that 68% of companies are concerned or very concerned about insider risk as their organizations return to the office or transition to hybrid work. Now more than ever it’s important to fully understand the insider threat.

What is an Insider Threat

An insider threat refers to malicious activity against an organization that originates from users with legitimate access to an organization’s network, applications or databases. It usually occurs when a current or former employee, or third parties with legitimate access to the organization’s sensitive information or privileged accounts, misuses their access to the detriment of the organization’s networks, systems and data.

Insider threats are the cause of most data breaches, but they are more difficult to identify and prevent than external attacks. Typically, cybersecurity solutions such as firewalls, intrusion detection systems and anti-malware software have focused on external threats, leaving the organization vulnerable to attacks from inside. If an attacker logs in using an authorized user ID, password, IP address and device, they are unlikely to trigger any security alarms, so it becomes hard to distinguish between normal and destructive behavior. Therefore, to effectively protect your digital assets, you need an insider threat detection strategy that combines multiple tools to monitor insider behavior while minimizing the number of false positives.

Types of Insider Threats

An insider threat may be executed intentionally or unintentionally. Here are 3 types of insider threats:

1. Careless Insider: Unintentional insider threats can be from a negligent employee who unknowingly exposes the system to outside threats. This is the most common type of insider threat, resulting from mistakes, such as leaving a device exposed or falling victim to a scam. For example, an employee who intends no harm may unintentionally click on an insecure link, infecting the system with malware.

2. Malicious insider: Malicious insider threats, also known as Turncloaks, are those who maliciously and intentionally abuse their privileged access to steal information or degrade systems for financial or personal incentives. For example, an individual who holds a grudge against a former employer, or an opportunistic employee who sells confidential information to a competitor. Malicious insiders have an advantage over other attackers because they are familiar with the security policies and procedures of an organization, as well as its vulnerabilities.

3. A Mole: A mole is an outsider but one who has gained insider access to an organization’s privileged network. They may pose as a vendor, partner, contractor, or employee, thereby obtaining the privileged authorization they otherwise would not qualify for. Their intent is to abuse this level of access to steal and sell data or use it for other malicious purposes, such as threatening to leak confidential information if an organization doesn’t comply with their demands.

Moles often exploit the existing business relationships of a company since most organizations work with various freelancers and contractors. They use stolen credentials or social engineering to gain access to this extended network and the company data that legitimate business partners work with.

No matter the intent, the result is the same – the compromised information security of an organization.

Insider Threat Statistics

Types Stats
Frequency and Prevalence
  • Over 34% of businesses globally experience insider threats every year. (Ponemon Institute, 2023)
  • Insider incidents have increased by 47% between 2018 and 2020. (Tessian, 2022)
  • 57% of organizations felt insider incidents had become more frequent in the past year. (Cybersecurity Insiders, 2021)
  • 62% of business users reported access to company data they shouldn’t see. (Ponemon Institute, 2023)
Cost and Impact:
  • The average cost of a single insider incident is $871,686, with credential theft tripling the cost. (Proofpoint, 2023)
  • Insider threats contribute to 22% of data breaches. (Verizon, 2021)
  • Data breaches involving credential theft cost organizations an average of $2.79 million per year. (Proofpoint, 2023)
  • 43% of businesses take a month or longer to detect employee access of unauthorized files. (Ponemon Institute, 2023)
Insider Threats Attacks by Types
  • Inadvertent insiders are responsible for over two-thirds of total records compromised. (IBM, 2017)
  • 62% of malicious insider attacks involve seeking financial gain through data exfiltration. (Gartner, 2020)
  • 29% of malicious insiders steal data for future endeavors, while 9% are motivated by sabotage. (Gartner, 2020)
  • 15-25% of insider threat incidents involve trusted business partners. (SoftActivity, 2023)
Industry Trends
  • Healthcare and Finance industries experience the most insider incidents involving employee misuse of access privileges. (Verizon, 2021)

How to Identify Insider Threats (Common Signs)

Most threat intelligence tools focus on the analysis of network, computer and application data while giving little attention to the actions of authorized users who could misuse their privileged access. For secure defense against an insider threat, you must track anomalous behavioral and digital activity.

Here are some common signs of an insider threat that should be monitored:

  • A dissatisfied or disgruntled employee or associate
  • Any attempt to bypass security
  • Logging onto networks at unusual times. For example, an employee who, without any apparent need, signs into the network at 1am may be cause for concern
  • Showing interest outside of their normal scope of duties
  • Repeated disregard of organizational policies
  • A surge in the volume of network traffic. If someone is trying to copy large quantities of data across the network, you will see unusual spikes in network traffic
  • Accessing resources or data that a user does not need to do their job
  • The use of unauthorized devices such as USB drives
  • Searching for sensitive information
  • Emailing sensitive information outside of the organization

How to Protect Against Insider Threats

There are a number of ways to protect your organization’s digital assets from an internal threat and these include the following:

Protect Critical Assets: You need to be aware of where your sensitive data is. Discovering and classifying sensitive data as it’s created will help you focus your data security efforts on the data that matters most.

Confidential data includes customer information, employee details, and detailed strategic plans. Once identified, each critical asset needs to be ranked in order of priority and the current state of each asset’s protection determined.

Create a Baseline of Normal User and Device Behavior: There are many different software systems that can track insider threats. These systems work by first establishing normal user activity by referring to access, authentication, account change, endpoint and virtual private network (VPN) logs. This data can then be used to assign risk scores to user behavior attached to specific events. This could be, for example, if a user downloads sensitive data to removable media or logs in from an unusual location. Once a baseline of normal user behavior is established, deviations can be flagged and investigated.

Increase Visibility: It is important to implement tools that continuously monitor user activity as well as collect and evaluate activity information from multiple sources.

Enforce Policies: It is essential to define and distribute the organization’s security policies. This prevents ambiguity and establishes the right foundation for enforcement. No employee, contractor, vendor, or partner should have any doubt about what is acceptable in relation to their organization’s security strategy.

Promote Culture Changes: Detecting insider threats is crucial but a more effective solution is to promote a security-aware culture within the organization. With the right beliefs and attitudes, negligence can be mitigated, and the roots of malicious behavior addressed before they escalate and cause damage. Employees and other associates should regularly participate in security training that educates them about security matters. This should be accompanied by the continuous measurement and improvement of employee satisfaction to pick up any early warning signs of discontent.

How Lepide Helps in Mitigating Insider threats

Implementing a Solution that is focused on identity and data security, such as the Lepide Data Security Platform, can ensure that you are focusing on the two most important aspects of insider threats: Active Directory and sensitive data.

The Lepide Data Security Platform can help you detect, prevent, and respond to insider threats in the following ways:

Discovery and Classification of Sensitive Data:

Most Data Security Platforms provide automated data classification tools to help you discover and classify your sensitive data. Such tools will not only make it easier to locate your sensitive data but also set up the necessary access controls to protect it. Recent research we undertook at GITEX in Dubai suggested that over 70% of enterprise organizations have more than 100,000 folders open to every employee. Obviously, having unrestricted access to such large amounts of data is a recipe for disaster.

Enforcing ‘Least Privilege’ Access: Employees should only be granted access to the resources they need to be able to adequately perform their duties. Once access permissions have been set up and assigned, organizations will need to implement a Platform that can detect unauthorized changes made to these permissions. Likewise, Data Security Platforms can detect, alert, report, and respond to any type of suspicious file/folder activity, including unauthorized access to privileged mailbox accounts.

Monitoring and Managing Inactive User Accounts:

Inactive user accounts – also referred to as “ghost” accounts – present a major security risk for organizations when they are not managed in a systematic and timely manner. For example, should an employee leave an organization on bad terms, and their account is still active, they may log in to the network to try to copy or delete sensitive data. Most sophisticated platforms can automate the process of managing inactive user accounts.

Monitoring Suspicious Out-Of-Hours Activity:

Should you find an employee logging onto your network during times that do not correlate with their typical usage pattern, this may indicate that something suspicious is taking place. A Data Security Platform like Lepide can be set up to monitor typical usage patterns, and fire an alert should this pattern change, for whatever reason.

Preventing the Spread of Ransomware: When a company falls victim to a ransomware attack, it is typically the result of a careless employee who either downloaded an email attachment or clicked on a link to a malicious website, which in turn led to the execution of the ransomware application. While Data Security Platforms are unable to prevent users from doing this, they can react in real time when the symptoms of an insider threat or ransomware attack are detected. Lepide can generate any number of pre-defined threat models that have been tailored toward detecting and reacting to critical security threats; enabling companies to lock down an insider threat before any real damage is done.

Want to see us demonstrate how Lepide helps detect insider threats? Book a personalized demo with one of the engineers or start a free trial today.

Danny Murphy
Danny Murphy

Danny brings over 10 years’ experience in the IT industry to our Leadership team. With award winning success in leading global Pre-Sales and Support teams, coupled with his knowledge and enthusiasm for IT Security solutions, he is here to ensure we deliver market leading products and support to our extensively growing customer base

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