Insider Threats: How Employee Discontent Can Lead to Serious Security Breaches

What is an Insider Threat?

As technology continues to advance, the threat landscape of data breaches evolves. Organizations can be vulnerable to attacks from both external and internal sources. While most security measures are concentrated on external threats, organizations must be aware of insider threats, which pose a significant risk.

So what exactly is an insider threat? An insider threat is a security risk posed by an individual within an enterprise's network or organization. Insiders who may cause harm can either be current employees, former employees, contractors, vendors, or any other individual who has authorized access to the organization's network, system, or data.

Insider threats can be malicious or unintentional. The former refers to individuals or groups who intentionally cause harm to the organization or its assets. The latter is a threat that arises from staff who inadvertently cause harm due to negligence or human error.

Understanding the Types of Insider Threats

There are different types of insider threats that organizations need to be aware of:

• Malicious Insiders: These are employees or contractors within the organization who intentionally cause damage to the company's reputation, finances, or sensitive data.

• Accidental/Unintentional Insiders: These are employees who inadvertently cause a breach due to negligence or human error.

• Disgruntled Insiders: These are employees who may harbor negative feelings toward their employer or colleagues and might use their access privileges to carry out an attack.

• Third-Party Insiders: These are vendors, contractors, or partners who have authorized access but may pose a threat to the organization due to their negligent or malicious behavior.

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• Compromised Insiders: These are insiders whose credentials, systems, or devices have been compromised, allowing an attacker to use their access to cause harm.

What Makes Insiders a Threat?

Insiders typically present a more significant risk than external threats because they already have access to the organization's data, systems, and network. This means they have a more in-depth knowledge of how to navigate through the system and what information controls to target.

Moreover, insiders are harder to detect than external threats because they are likely to avoid behaviors that could raise suspicion. They may also use their seniority, position, or technical expertise to cover up their tracks.

But what motivates insiders to cause harm? There are various reasons why insiders pose a threat to organizations:

• Financial Gain: Insiders might steal and sell confidential information to make quick money.

• Loyalty to Competitors: Insiders might have an allegiance to competing organizations.

• Revenge: Insiders may harbor negative feelings towards the organization and wish to cause harm.

• Personal Grudges: Insiders may want to dish out revenge on colleagues or managers for personal reasons.

• Ideological Reasons: Insiders may have a cause they believe in and feel that exposing the organization's data will further their agenda.

• Negligence: Sometimes, insiders may unwittingly cause harm due to carelessness or a lack of training.

Case Examples of Insider Threats

The rise in insider threats can be attributed to a lack of awareness and oversight of authorized users. Let us analyze some of the famous insider threat incidents that have hit the headlines over the years:

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1. Edward Snowden: The former National Security Agency contractor leaked classified documents that revealed the United States government's surveillance techniques. Snowden's actions led to a significant public relations crisis and colossal damage to the agency's reputation.

2. Chelsea Manning: A US army private, Manning, released classified military and diplomatic documents to WikiLeaks, exposing sensitive information. She was sentenced to 35 years in prison but was later granted clemency by the United States President Barack Obama.

3. Equifax Data Breach: In 2017, the credit reporting company faced a data breach that exposed the personal information of over 100 million customers. The breach was caused by the company's failure to patch a software vulnerability, which insiders exploited, leading to a devastating cyber-attack.

4. Capital One: A former software engineer was arrested and charged with carrying out one of the largest data breaches in US history. The attacker exploited a misconfigured web application firewall, stealing the data of over 106 million customers, including Social Security numbers and bank account details.

Preventing Insider Threats

Preventing insider threats requires a combination of physical, technical, and administrative controls. Here are some best practices that organizations can implement to mitigate the risk of an insider threat:

• Implement Access Controls: Access controls ensure that only authorized persons have access to sensitive information. Organizations can achieve this by using identity and access management systems that use multifactor authentication, role-based access control, and audit trails.

• Training and Awareness: Employees must be trained on the proper use of company systems and data and made aware of the consequences of mishandling company data.

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• Background Checks and Screening: Conducting background checks and screening processes on new and existing employees can help prevent malicious insiders.

• Implement a Security Policy: A comprehensive security policy can guide employees on how to handle sensitive data and reduce the likelihood of insider actions.

• Monitoring and Detection: Implementation of monitoring and detection tools can help organizations detect and thwart insider threats before they cause damage.

Conclusion

Insider threats pose a significant risk to businesses of all sizes and types. With the level of access insiders have, the potential damage that insiders can cause is immeasurable. Organizations must take the necessary steps to design and implement robust security controls to prevent or mitigate insider threats' impact. With the right tools and processes in place, companies can significantly reduce the likelihood of an insider threat occurrence.

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