What is an Insider Threat?

Insider threats are the biggest cyber security issue for companies and big organizations because they can cause the most damage. These types of cyber security threats are also very hard to detect and prevent in comparison to outsider attacks. This is because insiders already have the ‘keys to the kingdom’. So, what is an insider threat? And how does Gurucul prevent insiders and criminal impersonators from stealing your sensitive information?

Gurucul’s Chief Operating Officer Craig Cooper discusses the cyber security risks that malicious insiders pose for an organization in the video below.

Insider Threat Definition

An Insider Threat is an employee or contractor within an organization that is disgruntled or holds some form of resentment against the employer. A malicious insider might be doing something that would normally be outside of their employee responsibilities. This poses a cyber security risk for the organization.

What Are Some Types of Insider Threats?

Insider threats refer to security risks posed to an organization by individuals who have authorized access to its systems, networks, or sensitive information. These threats can arise from current or former employees, contractors, or partners. Here are some common types of insider threats:

Malicious Insider

This type of insider threat involves individuals who intentionally exploit their authorized access to cause harm to the organization. They may steal sensitive data, sabotage systems, engage in fraud, or disrupt operations for personal gain, revenge, or ideological reasons.

Careless or Unintentional Insider

Careless insiders are individuals who inadvertently cause security breaches due to negligence, lack of awareness, or inadequate training. They may mishandle sensitive data, unintentionally disclose sensitive information, share passwords, fall victim to social engineering attacks, or inadvertently introduce malware into the network through unsafe practices.

Compromised Insider

In this scenario, insiders’ credentials or systems are compromised by external threat actors, making them unwitting participants in malicious activities. Their accounts may be hijacked or credentials stolen, allowing attackers to exploit their privileges for unauthorized access, data theft, or other malicious actions.

Disgruntled Insider

Disgruntled insiders are employees or individuals with a negative attitude towards the organization, possibly due to job dissatisfaction, conflicts, or perceived mistreatment. They may seek to harm the organization by leaking sensitive information, disrupting operations, or engaging in unauthorized activities.

What are Indicators of a Malicious Insider?

Identifying indicators of a malicious insider can be challenging, as their behavior may vary based on their motivations and the specific context of their actions. However, there are certain indicators that organizations can look out for to detect potential malicious insider activity. Here are some common insider threat indicators:

  • Abnormal Data Access
    Malicious insiders may exhibit abnormal patterns of data access, such as accessing files or systems outside their normal job responsibilities, accessing data at unusual times or from unusual locations, or downloading large amounts of data without a legitimate business reason.
  • Privilege Escalation
    Malicious insiders may attempt to escalate their privileges or gain unauthorized access to systems or data beyond their authorized level. They may exploit vulnerabilities or misuse administrative privileges to bypass security controls and gain access to sensitive information.
  • Unusual Network Traffic
    Monitoring network traffic can reveal suspicious activities by insiders. Look for anomalies such as large data transfers to external destinations, unauthorized connections to suspicious IP addresses, or attempts to bypass network security controls.
  • Unauthorized System Modifications
    Malicious insiders may make unauthorized changes to systems, configurations, or security settings to gain access, hide their activities, or create backdoors for future access. Unauthorized system modifications can leave traces of their malicious intent.
  • Employee Behavior Changes
    Significant changes in an employee’s behavior, such as sudden job dissatisfaction, conflicts with coworkers, or disengagement from work, could be indicative of potential malicious intent or disgruntlement that might lead to insider threats.
  • Financial Stress or Personal Problems
    Malicious insiders may experience financial stress or personal problems that could motivate them to engage in fraudulent activities or seek financial gain through unauthorized actions, such as theft of intellectual property or selling sensitive information.
  • Attempted Data Exfiltration
    Monitoring for data exfiltration attempts, such as large transfers of sensitive data to external storage devices or suspicious network traffic patterns indicative of data theft, can help detect potential malicious insiders.
  • Violation of Security Policies
    Malicious insiders may repeatedly violate security policies, such as bypassing access controls, sharing sensitive information without authorization, or using unauthorized software or tools.
  • Unusual Work Patterns
    Insiders engaged in malicious activities may exhibit unusual work patterns, such as working late at odd hours, accessing systems during non-working hours, or attempting to access restricted areas without valid reasons.

How to Detect an Insider Threat

Detecting insider threats can be a challenging task, but there are several measures you can take to enhance your organization’s ability to identify potential insider threats.

Behavior Analytics

Implement User and Entity Behavior Analytics (UEBA) with advanced analytics and machine learning techniques to identify abnormal activities or deviations from baseline behavior. Behavior Analytics tools can flag suspicious behaviors that might indicate an insider threat, such as unauthorized access attempts or repeated failed login attempts.

Data Loss Prevention (DLP)

Deploy DLP solutions that monitor and control the movement of sensitive data within your organization. These tools can detect and block unauthorized attempts to exfiltrate or mishandle data, whether it’s through email, removable devices, or cloud storage.

Privileged Access Monitoring

Monitor and audit activities performed by users with privileged access rights, such as system administrators. Monitor their activities, especially those involving critical systems and sensitive data. Implement access controls and conduct periodic reviews to detect any misuse of privileges.

Insider Threat Programs

Establish an insider threat program that focuses on identifying potential insider threats. An insider threat program has many benefits. These include conducting thorough background checks during the hiring process and implementing continuous monitoring of employee activities, particularly those with access to sensitive data or critical systems.

How Gurucul Protects Against Insider Threats

Gurucul will look at user and entity behaviors on a normal day-to-day basis and compare that to baseline behavioral data. So, if a user or entity is going to places that they don’t normally go to, that might be a clear indicator of a potential cyber threat. Perhaps they are going to document stores or other types of company assets. Maybe they usually go there once or twice a day but now they’re visiting SharePoint 200-300 times in a very short period. Those types of behaviors are what Gurucul User and Entity Behavior Analytics takes into account when threat hunting for malicious insiders.

Explore Gurucul Security Analytics Platform and insider threat solutions for your organization. Contact us for details.

About The Author

Craig CooperCraig Cooper, Chief Operating Officer, Gurucul

Craig Cooper has served in several information security and risk management roles including CISO for a Fortune 500 Financial Services organization. While in this role, Craig defined and implemented an ISO standards-based Information Security program. Craig has led, developed, and delivered multiple Identity and Access Management Strategies and Roadmaps for several organizations. Craig has written for several trade magazines and has been a speaker with Burton Catalyst, Gartner, and ISSA.


Frequently Asked Questions

What are the 3 phases of an insider threat?

The three phases of an insider threat can be summarized as follows:

  1. The pre-attack phase involves the initial activities undertaken by an insider, such as gathering information, identifying vulnerabilities, or seeking opportunities to exploit their authorized access. This phase often includes reconnaissance and planning.
  2. The attack phase is when the insider carries out their malicious intent, whether it’s stealing sensitive data, sabotaging systems, or engaging in unauthorized activities. This phase is characterized by the actual execution of the planned actions.
  3. The post-attack phase occurs after the insider’s actions have been discovered. It involves identifying and mitigating the damage caused, investigating the incident, and implementing measures to prevent similar incidents in the future. This phase focuses on incident response, recovery, and lessons learned to enhance security measures and protect against future insider threats.

What are the five tactics used by insider threats?

The five tactics commonly used by insider threats include:

  1. Unauthorized access or abuse of privileges, where insiders exploit their authorized access to gain unauthorized entry or manipulate systems.
  2. Data theft or exfiltration, involving the intentional theft or unauthorized disclosure of sensitive information.
  3. Sabotage or destruction of systems, where insiders purposefully disrupt or damage critical infrastructure or data.
  4. Fraud or financial exploitation, where insiders engage in fraudulent activities for personal gain, such as embezzlement or insider trading.
  5. Espionage or unauthorized disclosure of intellectual property, where insiders covertly gather and leak valuable proprietary information to external parties.