How insider threats work and ways to safeguard your business from them

If you're into cybersecurity, you've likely got your bases covered to protect your organization from external threats and hackers. But what about the danger that might be lurking within?
Insider threats in cybersecurity are like digital wolves in sheep's clothing. It's when people connected to an organization, even those with authorized access, misuse it. This includes data tampering, undercover spying, sabotage, and even giving cybercriminals an entry point.
And it's not just about digital chaos. Insider threats and data breaches can cost organizations a fortune, averaging $4.5 million, with a big chunk attributed to employee negligence.

The Lowdown on Insider Threats

First things first, let's define what we mean by "insider threats." Simply put, these are the threats that come from within your organization. It could be anyone, from your employees and contractors to vendors who have access to your systems. These people, knowingly or unknowingly, can be your cybersecurity's worst enemy.

How Insider Threats Work

  • Malicious Intent

    Now and then, you come across insiders with a bone to pick – maybe they're disgruntled employees or someone trying to profit from stolen data. They deliberately bypass security measures to carry out their malicious deeds.

    Imagine you run an online store where customers trust you with their personal and financial information. Now, picture an insider with a personal grudge against your business. This person has a backstage pass to your domain management and decides to mess with your chosen domain name for website management. They might redirect your visitors to a dodgy site, putting customer data at risk.

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  • Negligence

    Insider threats aren't always on purpose; sometimes, honest mistakes happen. Like when an employee accidentally sends a top-secret document to the wrong person or falls for a sneaky phishing scam.
    For instance, imagine a scenario in a financial institution where a well-meaning employee, during a hectic day, accidentally emails sensitive financial statements to the wrong people. These unintended recipients had no business seeing that confidential data. It was a genuine error, but it goes to show how even well-intentioned slip-ups can pose insider threat risks, leading to a serious data breach.

  • Privilege Abuse

    Insiders with legitimate access might abuse their privileges. They could snoop around where they shouldn't, making it challenging to detect their activities. 

    Imagine an employee at an IT company who has legitimate access to a client database. They exploit their access to browse client records for personal gain, copying sensitive information for personal use. Their actions could initially go undetected because of their legitimate access.

  • Social Engineering

    Hackers can manipulate insiders through tactics like social engineering. They might impersonate a colleague or supervisor to trick employees into revealing sensitive information. For example, hackers could impersonate the CEO in a convincing email to the finance department, instructing an employee to transfer a large sum of money. Despite robust cybersecurity, the employee, believing it was a legitimate request, could unwittingly initiate the transfer.

  • Insider Trading

    In the world of finance, insider trading is a common type of insider threat. Employees with insider knowledge might trade stocks based on non-public information, which is illegal and unethical.

12 Ways to Safeguard Your Business

Now you know how these sly insider threats operate, it's time to get down to business and talk about how to keep your company safe.

  1. Employee Training and Awareness

    It's important to make sure your team is well-versed in the best cybersecurity practices. Train them to be sharp in spotting phishing emails, cautious when dealing with suspicious attachments, and emphasize how crucial it is to use robust, unique passwords.

    Image created by writer

  2. Implement Access Controls

    Not everyone needs access to everything. Implement role-based access control to restrict employees' access to data and systems based on their job roles. This minimizes the risk of abuse or accidental exposure.

    Imagine this: you're in charge of a busy contact call center where your customer service reps handle a variety of tasks. Now, let's say your CSRs have unrestricted access to your customer database, which is a recipe for insider threats.
    There's Alex, nursing a grudge, downloading sensitive data with ill intent. Then there's Sarah, still getting the hang of things, sharing the wrong customer info by mistake. And don't forget Michael, who's just plain nosy, peeking at records and gossiping about them.
    So, you implement role-based access control (RBAC). Administrators retain their access, basic CSRs see only what's necessary, and supervisors have a bit more freedom. With RBAC in place, Alex's actions are restricted, Sarah's errors are minimized, and Michael's curiosity is contained. Your call center is safer, your customer data is secure, and your company's reputation remains intact.

  3. Regularly Update and Patch Systems 

    Outdated software and systems are like an open invitation to cybercriminals, including insider threats. Keep your systems up-to-date with the latest security patches to close any vulnerabilities.
    Consider implementing DevSecOps to infuse security into your development process from the get-go. This means not only addressing vulnerabilities in existing software but proactively preventing them in new development. By incorporating security into your entire software development lifecycle, you'll be well-prepared to thwart cybercriminals and insider threats at every turn. 

  4.  Monitor Network Traffic

    Making sure that network traffic is constantly monitored is another powerful tool in combating insider threats. For example, imagine your London-based business is receiving calls from a number with the area code 986, which is associated with the state of Idaho.  

    Unless you have specific connections to that location, you’d surely find this a bit odd. Now, let’s translate this to computer networks. Each device and user in your network has unique identifiers, known as IP addresses. 

    By leveraging advanced network monitoring tools, you’ll be able to spot any unusual IP addresses, enabling you to identify potentially suspicious activity across your network. As a result, you can act promptly to avoid costly and damaging threats to your business.

    Most significant cybersecurity threats in organizations worldwide according to Chief Information Security Officers (CISO) as of February 2023 - Image Sourced from Statista.

  5. Encourage Reporting

    Build a workplace where your team feels comfortable reporting anything that seems off, and they won't have to stress about any backlash. Basically, you're turning them into the organization's watchful eyes and ears.

  6.  Use Data Loss Prevention (DLP) Tools 

    Data Loss Prevention (DLP) tools keep an eye on data transfers, making sure sensitive information doesn't go where it shouldn't. Plus, they can flag up insider threats by ringing the alarm bells when they spot any unusual data movements.

  7.  Employ Endpoint Security

    Use endpoint security solutions that offer real-time threat detection and response. These tools can help you identify and mitigate insider threats as they occur.
    Think of endpoint security solutions as your trusty guards, diligently keeping an eye on your devices and network to spot any sneaky insider threats. But what about conversations held over the phone? 
    That's where AI that can transcribe audio steps in, like an extra layer of security, but for voice communication.
    This AI can transcribe spoken words in real-time. Imagine it as a skilled eavesdropper, but one with good intentions. It's on the lookout for specific keywords or phrases that could signal trouble, like data leaks, unauthorized access, or suspicious behaviour.

  8.  Conduct Regular Audits 

    Regular security audits can help uncover vulnerabilities and suspicious activities. It's like a health checkup for your organization's cybersecurity.
    Consider using a fraud risk assessment template. Picture it as your guide to navigating potential risks linked to fraudulent activities. With this template, you can pinpoint the areas and processes that might be vulnerable to manipulation, fraud, or data breaches.

    Image created by writer. Statistics sourced from Forbes

  9.  Zero Trust Architecture 

    Embrace the Zero Trust mindset, where trust isn't granted by default, not even for those inside the organization. This approach ensures that everyone, insiders included, undergoes continuous verification and authentication.
    When you've got remote employees clocking in from afar, things get even more interesting. When you install remote desktop services, it’s like swinging the door wide open to remote access – convenient, but not a free pass for trust. It's all about ensuring that the people trying to tap into your organization's systems through these services are truly who they claim to be.
    One way to do this is by implementing secure remote access solutions, like VPNs or Software-Defined Perimeter  (SDP) systems. These provide controlled and secure access to network resources for your remote crew, adding an extra layer of security.
    You should also ensure that remote employees are fully clued up on how to protect themselves from security threats when working from home. 

  10. Data Encryption 

    Think of data encryption as an impenetrable fortress for your organization's secrets, safeguarding data both at rest and in transit. 
    When data is "at rest," it's locked away in a secure vault, transformed into an indecipherable code that only a specific decryption key can unlock, keeping it safe even from insiders. 
    Similarly, data "in transit" is protected like precious cargo in transit, shielded from prying eyes by encryption. 

  11. Employee Offboarding

    When employees leave the company, revoke their access immediately. A disgruntled former employee can be a major insider threat. 

  12. Cybersecurity Insurance

    Consider investing in cybersecurity insurance to mitigate the financial impact of a breach. It won't prevent insider threats, but it can soften the blow if they occur.

Unmasking Insider Threats

Think of insider threats as those sneaky hazards hiding in plain sight. While you're busy fretting about outside threats, these troublemakers can be causing havoc right under your nose within your organization. Their impact can be more significant than you might think, so it's unwise to underestimate these covert troublemakers.
When you follow these practical tips, you're essentially building a sturdy shield to protect your business from these hidden threats that might be much closer than you'd ever expect.