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Cybersecurity Fundamentals

What is an Insider Threat?

Insider threats are a type of cybersecurity risk caused by users with authorized access to the organization’s network, applications, or infrastructure. These threats can be incredibly difficult to detect and address because they already have the appropriate credentials. 

Security teams monitoring insider risk can’t rely on traditional security tools. These tools rely on assumptions that don’t translate to insider risk scenarios. These typically involve authorized user accounts interacting with assets they already have access to—in ways that don’t trigger alerts in a traditional SIEM environment. 

Five types of insider threats: 

Every insider threat scenario is unique, but most share some core characteristics. Understanding the five major types of insider risk makes deploying the appropriate detection rules and incident response workflows much easier. 

1. Malicious insiders

Malicious insiders are external threat actors that gain access to an organization’s internal systems. They intentionally breach those systems to commit fraud, steal sensitive data, or launch cyberattacks. 

These cybercriminals are usually motivated by financial gain. Once they gain access to privileged systems and data, they can monetize it in multiple ways: 

  • Selling initial access to other cybercriminals. Initial access brokers may sell authorized login credentials to other hackers on Dark Web leak sites. 
  • Holding the organization’s data hostage. Ransomware and double extortion attacks are easy to launch when threat actors have privileged network access. 
  • Selling sensitive data to third parties. Competing organizations, state intelligence agencies, and cybercrime groups may purchase sensitive data from malicious insiders. 

2. Pawns and moles

These are inside agents who join an organization while secretly working for an external group. These may be recent hires or people who have worked for the organization for a long time. 

Both pawns and moles work for an external group, but in different ways:  

  • Pawns are unaware that they are an insider agent. This usually happens due to social engineering or phishing scams. Threat actors manipulate an otherwise innocent user into acting against their own interests. 
  • Moles are working for an external group from the start. They intentionally pose as an employee, partner, or vendor in order to gain access to sensitive data and IT assets. Moles are undercover imposters with a clear intention to commit fraud. 

3. Negligent employees 

Sometimes, insider threats happen due to unintentional errors. Employees who are not conscientious with sensitive data may end up accidentally exposing it to the public despite having no malicious intent. 

Some examples of employee activities that translate to increased insider risk include losing company mobile devices or sharing work materials with friends and family members. This kind of risk is much higher in hybrid work environments, especially when company data is stored and processed on personal devices. 

Employees are not the only people who contribute to this kind of risk. Third-party partners, vendors, and consultants can also contribute to insider risk, especially if they have elevated permissions. 

4. Noncompliant employees 

Some employees willingly choose to disregard security controls when they are inconvenient. Bypassing restrictions increase insider risk and create shadow IT environments that the security team has no visibility over.  

Modern enterprises deploy a variety of controls and policies to ensure the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of sensitive data. These policies can impact the usability of IT assets, inconveniencing employees who feel pressured to maintain high-performance output. 

When employees create workarounds that bypass security policies, they dramatically increase insider risk while reducing visibility for security practitioners. When a security incident occurs on one of these shadow IT assets, the team may not be able to detect or respond in time. 

5. Departing employees 

Employees who leave the company on bad terms are a clear source of insider risk. Someone who feels like the organization let them down may take data or other assets with them in an attempt to get revenge. 

However, departing employees represent increased insider risk even if they are leaving the company on good terms. People naturally feel ownership over the work they’ve done, and may send those materials to a personal email address or publish them on a personal repository. 

 In many cases, departing employees aren’t even aware that those materials are the company’s intellectual property. They don’t recognize the danger of moving that data off the company’s servers until an insider risk expert explains it to them. 

Insider threats may not be preventable—but they can addressed proactively 

There is no way to predict criminal behavior in individuals. Any employee may become an insider threat, knowingly or unknowingly. Insider attacks may occur anywhere there is a likely offender, a suitable target, and an absence of capable guardianship. 

Instead of trying to prevent insider threats, security leaders should focus on managing insider risk. This means identifying the factors that heighten risk, and working together with Human Resources and department leaders to reduce it. 

In practice, this means identifying at-risk employees and building partnerships with department leaders who can help address those issues before they turn into insider threats. Concerning behaviors like truancy, antisocial activities, and poor job performance should be viewed from an insider risk perspective. 

Early detection enables robust protection against insider threats 

By the time an insider has exfiltrated sensitive data or deleted mission-critical files, it’s too late. Security leaders need to deploy detection and response solutions capable of addressing insider risk early in the attack lifecycle. 

This requires leveraging deep visibility into every corner of your organization’s daily operations. The SOC Visibility Triad provides a firm foundation for building security policies that can catch insider threats early: 

UEBA is the best defense against insider risk 

The SOC Visibility triad is just the starting point for comprehensive protection against insider risk. User and Entity Behavioral Analytics (UEBA) is the most important technology for addressing this risk effectively.  

This technology enhances your SIEM capabilities by observing how every IT asset in your environment and triggering alerts when their actions deviate from their own established routine. 

When an insider threat tries to access sensitive data they don’t usually request access to, UEBA platforms like Exabeam respond by increasing their risk score. When the same insider tries to send that data off the network, the risk score will increase yet again, potentially prompting an immediate investigation. 

But no two organizations are exactly alike. Successfully managing insider risk using UEBA technology requires building custom rules that reflect your organization’s real-world user activities and risks. Lumifi’s extensive product expertise and consolidated SOC automation platform ShieldVision enable organizations to secure their systems against sophisticated insider threats. 


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