How to Predict, Detect and Respond to Insider Threat Indicators

It’s common for organizations to spend most of their cybersecurity budget and efforts on preventing, detecting, and combatting threats that originate from outside the organization. However, while external threats might get more attention, the potential damage from insider threats should not be underestimated. Malicious or negligent actions from employees, contractors, or business partners can lead to significant breaches, data loss, and damage. An effective cybersecurity strategy should address both external and insider threats to ensure comprehensive protection of sensitive data and digital assets.

A different kind of mentality and different toolsets are required for detecting insider threats from the approaches used for external threats. This article looks at the tools and techniques for, not just detecting but actually predicting, when a threat poses real risk. This can be done trough analyzing patterns and behaviours which serves as insider threat indicators.

What Are Insider Threat Indicators?

Insider threats refer to cybersecurity risks that originate from individuals within an organization, such as employees, contractors, business partners, or other trusted insiders who have access to the organization’s systems, networks, and sensitive information. These individuals might exploit their access privileges, intentionally or unintentionally, to compromise the confidentiality, integrity, or availability of data or systems.

Insider threats also can come from external actors who have attained compromised credentials that allow them to act as a legitimate insider. The credentials get them past perimeter security tools such as intrusion detection/prevention systems and onto the network where they can exploit the ill-gotten insider access.

How These Threats May Impact Organizations

The real danger of insider threats is that insiders know their way around their organization’s network, systems, and applications, and they know what data and information is most valuable. Insider threats can have significant and wide-ranging impacts on organizations, affecting their data security, operational integrity, financial stability, and reputation. Here are some ways insider threats can affect organizations:

  • Data Breaches – Insiders with malicious intent can steal sensitive data such as customer information, trade secrets, financial data, and proprietary information. These breaches can lead to financial losses, regulatory fines, and legal actions, as well as damage to customer trust and reputation.
  • Intellectual Property Theft – Insiders can steal valuable intellectual property, such as product designs, research findings, and proprietary software code. This can lead to competitors gaining an unfair advantage, decreased market share, and compromised innovation efforts.
  • Financial Loss – Insider threats can result in financial losses due to fraud, embezzlement, and unauthorized access to financial systems. Manipulating financial data or conducting fraudulent transactions can have significant negative impacts on an organization’s bottom line.

Other impacts can include operational disruption, reputational damage, regulatory and legal consequences, supply chain risks, litigation and legal costs, and stakeholders’ loss of trust.

Common Types of Insider Threats

Insiders already have a certain level of access to perform specific activities on a network. What tends to distinguish them is their motivation for going rogue. Nevertheless, their activities follow certain patterns that make them detectable with the right technology.

  • Malicious Insiders – These are individuals within the organization who intentionally misuse their access for personal gain, to harm the company, or to steal sensitive information..
  • Careless Users – These individuals unintentionally cause a security breach due to ignorance or carelessness.
  • Negligent Users – These employees may not act out of maliciousness, but they circumvent the normal security protocols to make their job easier; for example, turning off a personal firewall.
  • Compromised Credentials – Legitimate credentials or access to systems are stolen or otherwise compromised by an external actor.
  • Privilege Abuse – Employees with elevated access privileges might abuse their permissions to access sensitive information that they don’t have a legitimate need for.
  • Insider Collaboration – An employee might collaborate with an external threat actor to steal data or facilitate an attack from within the organization.


How to Predict Threats and Malicious Insider Attacks

Given that an insider usually has access privileges that are a normal part of their work processes, the key to predicting an insider threat is to monitor all users for risky and anomalous behaviors, determine their severity, and assess whether they could cause damage or whether malicious activity is about to occur or is currently taking place.

User and Entity Behavior Analytics (UEBA) is often advocated as the best means to detect nefarious activity by internal actors. UEBA involves keeping track of what users are doing and looking for behaviors that are outside the range of normal activities. This, then, is combined with in-depth intelligence about a user’s identity attributes and the privileges he has on the network. This approach involves analyzing the access rights and entitlements a person has; the activities he has been performing across multiple accounts, both now and in the past; and the typical activities that members of his peer groups are doing. It takes a combination of the right data sources, sophisticated machine learning, and perceptive data science to pinpoint truly aberrant actions that can be seen as insider threat indicators.


Uncover Insider Threats Through Predictive Security Analytics

Key Insider Threat Indicators

Detecting insider threats can be challenging because insiders often have legitimate access to systems and data. However, certain behaviors and patterns can serve as indicators of potential insider threats.

  • Unusual Access Patterns – Insiders may exhibit unusual patterns of accessing systems, networks, or data, such as accessing sensitive information at odd hours or accessing systems outside their normal job responsibilities.
  • Excessive Data Access or Downloads – An insider planning to steal sensitive data might access or download a larger amount of data than their typical usage, especially if the data is unrelated to their role.
  • Unauthorized Access – Insiders might attempt to access systems, databases, or files that are outside their authorized scope.
  • Frequent Failed Access Attempts – Repeated failed attempts to access certain systems or data could indicate an insider trying to bypass security measures or escalate their privileges.
  • Accessing Restricted Areas – It could be a sign of an insider threat if an employee suddenly starts accessing areas or systems they have no legitimate reason to access.
  • Copying or Transferring Data – Insiders might copy sensitive data to external storage devices, cloud services, or personal email accounts in preparation for unauthorized use or distribution.

Additional insider threat indicators are excessive use of privileges, unauthorized use of credentials, data exfiltration, logins from multiple locations, unapproved software installations, violations of policies, excessive data printing, and inconsistent work patterns.

How to Respond to Insider Threats

Responding to an insider threat requires a combination of preventive measures, detection strategies, and appropriate responses.

Prevention and Preparation

  • Develop clear and comprehensive policies outlining acceptable use of company resources, data access, and behavior. Make sure employees understand the consequences of violating these policies.
  • Implement the principle of least privilege for access control, which ensures that employees only have access to the resources and information necessary for their roles.
  • Conduct thorough employee background checks and reference checks during the hiring process to identify potential risks.
  • Provide regular security awareness training to employees about the importance of data security, the signs of insider threats, and the potential consequences of such actions.
  • Implement security measures such as encryption to safeguard sensitive data.


  • Utilize behavior analysis tools that monitor and analyze employee behavior to identify anomalies or patterns that could indicate an insider threat. Combine this with in-depth intelligence about a user’s identity attributes and the privileges he has on the network to make anomalous behavior stand out.
  • Implement monitoring tools that track and log activities on company systems, networks, and databases.
  • Use data loss prevention (DLP) solutions to identify and prevent the unauthorized transmission of sensitive data.


  • Establish a dedicated team responsible for responding to insider threats. This team should consist of representatives from IT, legal, HR, and senior management.
  • If an insider threat is suspected, isolate the affected systems or accounts to prevent further damage or data loss.
  • Collect relevant evidence, logs, and records that can help in understanding the scope and impact of the insider threat.
  • Collaborate with legal and HR departments to ensure that appropriate actions are taken within the boundaries of company policies and applicable laws. Depending on the severity of the incident, take appropriate disciplinary actions against the insider involved, which could include suspension, termination, or legal action.
  • Depending on the severity of the incident, consider communicating with relevant stakeholders, including employees, clients, and partners, while adhering to legal and regulatory requirements.
  • Implement measures to mitigate the impact of the threat, such as restoring compromised data, strengthening security controls, and revising access permissions.

Learning and Improvement

  • Conduct a thorough post-incident analysis to understand how the breach occurred, what could have been done differently, and how to prevent similar incidents in the future.
  • Use the insights gained from the analysis to improve existing security measures, policies, and procedures.

Find Insider Threats Before Data Exfiltration


Preventing Insider Attacks Requires a Different Approach

Malicious or negligent inside workers, or those posing as one through the use of compromised credentials, can represent a significant cyber risk to any organization. Preventing and detecting such threats requires a different approach than the typical external cyberattacks.

The most effective way to pinpoint the presence of insider threats, without creating a lot of false positive alerts, is to overlay user activities with user identity intelligence, cluster identities into dynamic peer groups, create time-based behavioral baselines, and continuously learn what is acceptable behavior in order to spot the unacceptable behavior. It takes a combination of the right data sources, sophisticated machine learning, and predictive analytics to pinpoint truly aberrant actions that are good indicators of misuse of assigned privileges.



Frequently Asked Questions

How do insider threats differ from external threats?

The main distinction between insider threats and external threats lies in the source of the threat and the level of authorized access to the organization’s resources. Insider threats involve individuals who have internal access and often use their legitimate privileges to commit malicious actions. External threats come from unauthorized individuals outside the organization who seek to breach the organization’s defenses and gain access to sensitive information or disrupt operations. Both types of threats require tailored cybersecurity strategies to mitigate their risks effectively.

Are all insider threats intentional?

Not all insider threats are intentional. A person can accidentally or negligently violate a security policy that inadvertently results in a breach. For example, an employee could install software on their workstation that opens a backdoor into the organization’s network.

What are some behavioral indicators of insider threats?

The best way to monitor for insider threats is to look at users’ behaviors, watching for anything that seems to be unusual and risky. Some common behavioral indicators include logging in at unusual times or from unusual locations; moving, copying, or deleting large amounts of data; attempting to access systems or applications for which they have no legitimate business purpose; conducting activities that are not commonly performed by the worker’s peer group.

How can analytics help predict insider threats?

Predictive analytics adds an extra layer of sophistication to insider threat detection by leveraging advanced data analysis techniques to identify suspicious behaviors and patterns. This proactive approach is essential for mitigating the risks associated with insider threats and protecting an organization’s sensitive information and assets.