When you think of cybersecurity threats, what comes to mind? If you pictured faceless criminals (or a team of them) in a dimly-lit headquarters working tirelessly to steal your most precious digital assets, you’re not alone. Yet, cybercrime doesn’t always look like a scene from a Hollywood movie.
Sometimes, cyber threats are closer to home, making them all the more surprising (and frustrating) for many organizations. They’re called insider threats, and you need to pay special attention to ensure you – and your data – don’t fall victim.
The threat landscape
Organizations are wise to prioritize cybersecurity strategy and adequate budgeting to protect their networks and valuable private data. Cybercrime is predicted to reach an alarming $10.5 trillion by 2025, making it a lucrative business venture for opportunistic criminals worldwide.
DDoS, SQL injections, supply chain attacks, DNS tunneling – all pervasive attacks that can arrive on your doorstep anytime. But your strategy is incomplete if you only secure the perimeter and do not address internal risks.
Insider threats are on the rise, and they’re particularly risky as they’re less often reported. Estimates state that over 70% of insider attacks never reach the headlines. As such, organizations cannot learn from their peers’ mistakes or oversights.
What is an insider threat?
Indisputably one of the most underestimated risks to organizations, insider threats are defined by CISA as “the potential for an insider to use their authorized access or understanding of an organization to harm that organization.”
Insider threats are, at their most basic, those that come from within your organization. End users with privileged access present unique risks to your network and data. Insider threats are particularly challenging to protect against as users may have access controls and particular familiarity with internal processes and procedures that enable them to navigate without raising suspicions. As such, insider attacks often go undetected until long after the breach.
Types of insider threats to look out for
Insider threats amount to attacks via employee user accounts. But that doesn’t always mean that a disgruntled employee or opportunistic bad seed is infiltrating the system and reaping the rewards. Sometimes, even the employee may not realize they’ve been a pawn in someone’s scheme until it’s too late.
Remember that insiders include third-party vendors, consultants, business partners, and others outside the organization with access to systems and networks.
Here are the two types of insider threats to be aware of:
Acts of negligence
Insider threats as a result of negligence are incidental. Naive or careless employees pose a significant threat to security, as it only takes one wrong decision to deliver information into the wrong hands.
Particular attacks include:
Phishing and spear phishing attacks, in which criminals purport to be a trusted source and solicit information from their target. Spear phishing attacks are particularly hazardous as attackers take time, do their research, and approach employees with a particularly well-informed demand under the guise of an official request.
CEO fraud is similar to spear phishing but takes things one step further by first gaining control of an email account of a c-suite employee. These requests are typically directed toward accounting departments to make sizeable financial transfers or payments.
Negligent behavior may not begin as an attack from an outsider. Instead, this can include taking physical devices to insecure places where they could fall into the wrong hands. In 2022, burglars stole a hard drive from a US Military analyst, exposing the personal details of more than 26 million veterans.
Acts of malicious intent
Unfortunately, sometimes the attacks originate on the inside. Disgruntled employees or contractors have been known to take advantage of their privileged access to reap personal rewards.
Malicious insiders may steal financial information, intellectual property (IP), or personally identifiable information (PII) they intend to trade for their financial benefit or use for competitive advantage. For example, after leaving the company in 2020, a former Google employee was jailed for taking trade secrets to Uber, his new employer. In 2019, an engineer breached Capital One’s systems and stole 100 million customer records and hundreds of thousands of social security numbers and bank details.
Keys to prevention
As leading data protection vendor Cyberhaven states, “Organizations must be able to address the risks from malicious insiders who intentionally steal sensitive data for personal reasons as well as users who can accidentally expose information due to negligence or simple mistakes.”
The key to mitigating risk is a proactive approach and a risk-aware culture. Consider these elements when designing your security strategy:
- Implement threat detection tools to detect non-standard behavior or access and risk assessments to identify areas of concern.
- Threat detection can also come via peer reports and employee diligence. Your organization should have a straightforward procedure for whistleblowing if employees are concerned about their peers’ behavior.
- User account administration is the best chance you stand against insider threats. Less privilege ensures employees have only the access required to perform their functions. Separation of duties guarantees no single user has access to all aspects of a system or process.
- Designing a risk-aware culture, including user training and education, is a first line of defense for preventing threats. Ensure cybersecurity is part of your organization’s day-to-day lexicon so that users know what to look out for and where to report risks when they arise.
Should an insider threat arise, ensure you do more than address the end user themselves. Insider threats point to where you can strengthen your systems or policies, regardless of whether the attack succeeds. Truly secure organizations regularly update their security approach to stay ahead of risks.
About the Author: Having spent her career in various capacities and industries under the “high tech” umbrella, Stefanie Shank is passionate about the trends, challenges, solutions, and stories of existing and emerging technologies. A storyteller at heart, she considers herself one of the lucky ones: someone who gets to make a living doing what she loves. Stefanie is also a writer for Bora.
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