Most, if not all, organisations are vigilant about safeguarding against threats that can penetrate endpoint systems via email, websites, and other known and unknown pathways. But what about threats that come from within your organisation? Even worse, from those who you assume can be trusted?
What Are Insider Threats?
"Insider threats" are infrequent but real. Although we tend to think of vengeful former employees or contractors on the lookout for ill-gotten gains, the truth is that many insider breaches are wholly unintentional. Data breaches can be accidental or unintentional — caused by user carelessness, negligence, or compromised credentials — or of course deliberate malicious insider activity.
When it comes to preventing mishaps that lead to unintentional breaches of organisational systems, user education is a top priority. Make security training an essential part of the onboarding process. When systems are updated, or new processes or procedures put in place, education and training sessions will lessen the likelihood of attacks from within due to errors or negligence.
But how can you anticipate malicious attacks from within and prevent them and the damage they cause before it's too late?
Identify the Early Warning Signs
Business owners, IT staff, and cybersecurity professionals must always be alert to the possibility of insider threats because keeping data safe from those who have permission to access it depends on rapid identification of and response to breaches. Malicious insiders have the upper hand; they're already past your defences. With authorised system access, they have sensitive data at their fingertips, know the organisation's weaknesses, and can easily acquire valuable assets.
Watch for Unhappy Employees
Are employees dissatisfied? Remember that unhappy employees might be easily tempted. Keeping an eye on employees and considering their state of mind is more than just good HR practice — it is a good cybersecurity policy as well.
So, reach out to your employees. Meet with them, speak with them. Try to understand how they feel about the state of your organisation. Fixing issues before they boil over into malicious cyberactivity can save the company from the trouble that would result from an insider breach.
Also see: What is Phishing?
Revoke Access Immediately upon Termination
Former employees who still have access to company networks and data pose a significant security threat — those who were let go from their positions pose particular risks.
Institute IT procedures for employee termination and adhere to them thoroughly and promptly. Notify IT immediately when a user's employment has ended and ensure that all access privileges to networks, data, and computer equipment are quickly revoked.
Keep an Eye Out for Financial Distress
Insider breaches have been known to be motivated by financial need — and greed. Whether an employee is experiencing a credit squeeze, didn't receive an anticipated promotion or raise, or is facing unexpected pressures from a health crisis or other cause, outside pressures may lead an individual to generate much-needed cash however he or she can.
In addition to posing a cybersecurity threat, financial stress affects employee productivity and health. HR professionals should ensure that managers are aware of the signs of financial stress and alert them to worrisome employee behaviours that may result.
Watch for Sudden, Unexplained Changes in Interests or Behaviours
Is an individual suddenly working late or odd hours? Be aware of out-of-the-ordinary, unexplained behaviours. Employees who have a sudden interest in accessing classified material or information outside of their current assignments should obviously raise a red flag. Investigate why they might be interested. Don't assume you can trust them, no matter what their role in the company might be.
Uphold Least-Privilege Access
Best practices for preventing insider threats start with standard practices for overall employee risks: Be aware of suspicious or erratic behaviour. Follow termination procedures to the letter. Notice dissatisfaction and try to address it.
Today, to reduce the attack surface for insider threats, organisations are increasingly limiting employee permissions based on the principle of least-privilege access. Each user has access privileges only for the systems and data needed for the job. Likewise, each system has the least authority necessary to perform its assigned duties.
The zero-trust concept takes the least-privileges approach to combatting insider threats still further, based on the principle that no person or device should be trusted, whether it is within or outside of the network perimeter. It requires every person and/or device to be validated and authenticated to access each resource. Microsegmentation stops the spread of malicious agents, should they get in.
As a result, fewer employees can take malicious actions, fewer accounts can be hacked, and fewer people can make errors that result in breaches.