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Insider Threat Program: What Is It And Why Is Having One Important?

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By: Nihad Hassan

January 6, 2022

Cyberattacks are increasing significantly in both sophistication and number. Protecting digital assets from the ever-increasing number of cyber threats has become a top priority for organizations worldwide. To counter the increased number of attacks, organizations employ various technological solutions, such as Firewalls, IDS, IPS, SIEM, and NDR. Despite all these defenses, cybercriminals still find ways to infiltrate IT networks and do malicious work.

Most organizations focus their efforts on improving their cyber defenses to stop outsiders, such as hackers and other threat actors attacking cyberspace. However, a significant threat remains greatly underestimated, which is the threat that originates from within the organization or the Insider Threat.

An Insider Threat is any threat that originates from within an organization and results in leaking its confidential data to outsiders, either intentionally or unintentionally (due to negligence, misuse, or by installing cloud applications without the knowledge of the IT department). These threats include current employees, former employees, or third-party providers, such as business partners, contractors, sub-contractors, suppliers, and any party with legitimate access to internal company resources and networks (see Figure 1). pie chart of threats Figure 1- Insiders are responsible of %90 security incidents – source: Verizon 2015 Data Breach Investigations Report

Malicious insiders can have different motivations: to get revenge after being fired from work, sell stolen information to another competitor (industrial espionage), or loyalty to a different organization. No matter the insider motivation to steal or facilitate the leakage of sensitive information, insider threats can damage the affected organization.

Insider threats have become a growing problem, affecting all organizations and across all industries. According to the Verizon Data Breach Investigations Report, 34% of data breaches in 2019 were due to internal actors.

This article will shed light on the concept of an Insider Threat program, its advantages, and why it is essential to have one in today's digital age.

What is an Insider Threat Program, and why is it important to have one?

All organizations need to give their employees access to critical business functions and sensitive information as a part of their jobs; otherwise, no work gets done. This access exposes sensitive business resources to various insider threats, such as leaking confidential information or giving unauthorized access to outside threat actors. Leaking sensitive information can have serious consequences on the victim organization, ranging from lost revenue and customers to incurring huge fines for non-compliance with enforced regulations such as GDPR, HIPAA, and PCI DSS.

An Insider Threat Program (sometimes called a "framework") is the set of controls and security policies and practices used to detect, prevent, and respond to insider threats. The ultimate goal is to have a kind of early alarming system used to recognize early indicators of insider threat and work to stop it before it causes any damage. Early indicators of Insider Threat include many signs such as:

  • Poor work performance.
  • Violating company policies, especially the IT security policy.
  • Problems with work colleagues.
  • Using company computers to access forbidden sites (e.g., adult, gaming, and gambling websites).
  • Trying to synchronize personal computing devices or USB sticks to working devices.
  • Installing internet programs (e.g., cloud apps) on organization devices.
  • Clearing browsing history carefully after finishing work and using privacy cleaner applications – such as CCleaner - to clear all traces from the work computer.
  • Request to leave work suddenly.

As we see, the various risk indicators depend on each organization's work. The security team must monitor such behavior to help them determine malicious insiders early and reduce the overall organizational risks.

Having an Insider Threat Program in an organization becomes very important for the following reasons:

  1. Insiders are more dangerous than outsider threat actors because:
  • Insiders know your IT infrastructure, operating systems, and applications very well.
  • Insiders know where valuable data is stored within your network.
  • The insider may have direct access to core business areas.
  • Insiders can use their legitimate credentials to stop some security systems, clear logs, or do other malicious things to cover the access to critical resources that external threat actors obtain.
  1. Reduce the likelihood of insider attacks by knowing all possible ways and risks indicators of those attacks before they take place.

  2. Help an organization meet the compliance requirements of many regulations, such as GDPR, HIPAA, PCI DSS, and others that require an Insider Threat Program.

All these factors make the insider threat more damaging than the outsider. For instance, according to Ponemon Institute study titled "Cost of Insider Threats: Global study" released in 2020, the total average cost of one insider incident has reached up to $11.45 million.

How to mitigate insider threats?

Various measures can be taken to strengthen organizations' defense against insider threats. Keep in mind that there are many security solutions already in use by most organizations' IT departments. However, they are not explicitly named to fight insider threats, although they are very efficient. The most obvious examples of such tools include Identity and Access Management (AIM) and Data Loss Prevention (DLP) solutions. The following section identifies two possible countermeasures: technological and human-based.

Use Identity and Access Management (IAM) solution

Deploying an IAM solution will help organizations regulate access to sensitive resources by enforcing robust authentication methods, such as Multi-Factor (MFA) and Biometric. IAM solutions are also used to define specific access permission (authorization) for each identity that exists in the system, such as users, systems, and applications.

Aside from keeping users credentials and access privileges in a central network location, an IAM solution will allow the security team to track all employees' activities across the organization's IT environment, including on-premise and connected cloud services. This helps provide complete visibility over all interactions between all devices that exist in an organizational ecosystem.

By regulating secure access to protected resources via authentication and authorization, IAM solutions help protect against data breaches caused by insiders. It recognizes the most sensitive information within the system (e.g., PII, trade secrets, software code, supplier information) and governs who can access it.

End-user cybersecurity training

Another critical aspect to lowering insider threats is educating employees about cybersecurity threats. For instance, a good percentage of insider incidents are caused by unaware employees. For example, clicking a phishing link within a malicious email can lead to installing data-stealing malware on an employee's PC, leading to a compromise of its data, or simply installing ransomware that spreads to all connected devices across the network.

Another example of leaking sensitive files inadvertently is using private email systems to store business-sensitive files. Such a practice can reveal sensitive information to outside threat actors if the subject employee's personal email gets hacked.

Summary

An Insider Threat Program must become an integral part of any cybersecurity strategy. According to Dashlane's annual Insider Threat Report, 90% of organizations feel vulnerable to insider attacks, and 50% of them have suffered from an insider attack during the last year. Without considering insider risks and working efficiently to detect and mitigate them, organizations cannot achieve security and protect their most precious information assets from being exposed by unauthorized parties.

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