The Anatomy of Insider Threats: Understanding the Risk Within Your Organization

The Threat Within: Understanding Insider Threats

When we talk about cybersecurity threats, our minds often jump to images of hackers in dark rooms, relentlessly cracking codes and breaking into networks to steal valuable data. We seldom think about security breaches that come from within an organization – from trusted and authorized users with access to sensitive information.

These internal security threats – commonly referred to as ‘insider threats’ – are often overlooked by organizations, but they can pose a significant risk to their cybersecurity. In fact, insider threats have become one of the most significant threats to cybersecurity today.

So, what exactly is an insider threat, and why do organizations need to be concerned about them?

Defining Insider Threats

Insider threats are security risks that come from unauthorized or malicious activities within an organization by employees or other trusted users. It’s a situation where someone who has been given access to an organization’s sensitive information, data, or systems, either intentionally or unintentionally, misuses that access to cause harm to the organization. Basically, it is the threat from an individual within the company who is authorized to access company resources.

Insider threats can come in various forms, including:

- Malicious insider threats: These are insiders who purposefully try to harm the organization, usually for financial gain or revenge. Examples include employees who steal sensitive data, commit fraud, or sabotage critical systems.

- Accidental insider threats: These are insiders who unintentionally put the organization at risk. These can include employees who mistakenly send sensitive information to the wrong person or click on a malicious link.

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- Compromised insider threats: These are insiders who are coerced or tricked into performing actions on behalf of an attacker. Cybercriminals use social engineering techniques, such as phishing or spear-phishing, to trick insiders into giving up sensitive information.

There are many reasons why an employee might become an insider threat. It could be a lack of loyalty to the organization, personal issues, financial difficulties, or simply an opportunity to gain financially. Whatever the reason, the result can be devastating for the organization.

The Risks of Insider Threats

An insider threat is a serious problem for organizations, and the consequences can be expensive and damaging. It can result in loss of revenue, damage to a company’s reputation, and loss of valuable information or data.

The 2021 Cost of Insider Threat Report estimates that on average, the cost of an insider threat can be around $2.6 million per incident. This includes direct and indirect costs such as legal fees, data loss, intellectual property theft, and reputational damage.

If an insider threat is not dealt with promptly, it can cause significant damage over time. It could lead to a company’s financial losses, non-compliance with regulatory requirements, and even bankruptcy.

Examples of Insider Threats

Insider threats have occurred in organizations of all sizes and industries, and the consequences have been devastating. Here are a few high-profile examples:

- Edward Snowden: One of the most famous insider threats is Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor. In 2013, Snowden leaked classified NSA documents to the media, revealing the extent of the U.S government’s surveillance programs.

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- Capital One: In 2019, a former Amazon Web Services (AWS) employee, Paige Thompson, was accused of stealing sensitive data from Capital One bank’s cloud-based storage. Thompson was able to access the data due to a misconfigured firewall on the server.

- Tesla: In 2018, a Tesla employee was accused of changing the code in Tesla’s manufacturing system to export data to an unknown third-party. This data was allegedly stolen and then disclosed by the employee to his former employer.

How to Prevent Insider Threats

Preventing insider threats is a critical part of an organization’s cybersecurity strategy. Here are some ways organizations can prevent and detect insider threats:

1. Background Checks: Conducting background checks on employees can help organizations avoid hiring people prone to risky behaviors or with a history of malicious actions.

2. Access Control: Organizations should implement access controls to ensure that employees can only access data and systems for which they have permission.

3. Employee Training: Providing regular training to employees can help prevent accidental insider threats. Employees should be trained on how to identify and report suspicious behavior, phishing emails, and other security risks.

4. Behavior Monitoring: An advanced behavior monitoring system can help detect unusual or suspicious activity by continuously analyzing employees’ actions.

5. Incident Response Plan: Have an incident response plan in place to help mitigate the impact of an insider threat incident quickly.


Insider threats are a worrying reality for organizations, but with the right measures in place, they can be prevented. Organizations need to be vigilant about the risks associated with insider threats and ensure that they have effective strategies in place. By implementing effective cybersecurity measures, monitoring employees’ behavior, and having clear incident response plans, organizations can mitigate the risks of insider threats and protect their sensitive data and systems against both internal and external threats.

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