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Preventing Data Breaches: Strategies for Mitigating Insider Threats

mitigating insider threats

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Insider threats are insidious and notoriously difficult to detect and prevent. One of the reasons for this is that you are dealing with colleagues, not “hackers in hoodies.” But insider threats are not always malicious; accidental insiders are as much a threat to data security as malicious employees out to cause harm.

Risk advisors, Kroll, produce regular reports on the state of security: for example, Kroll’s Q3 2022 Threat Landscape report saw insider threats peak at the highest level; the report found that almost 35% of all unauthorised access incidents had insider threats at the core.

Insider threats are controllable but require a spectrum of management strategies; here are some examples of insider threats with five strategies you can use to mitigate these threats.

As mentioned, insider threats are not always from malicious security attacks; accidents and negligence play a significant role in security incidents. In addition, the people behind insider threats also vary and include employees, suppliers, consultants, and freelancers.

Here are some examples of the type of insider threats that cause corporate harm:

Examples of Insider Threats

Disgruntled employees

People leaving an organisation may only sometimes be doing so happily. Employees with a bone to pick with a company may cause harm by exposing data or stealing proprietary and confidential information. One recent report from Unit 42 research found that 75% of the security incidents they handled could be traced to disgruntled employees. However, not all accounts concur. Many studies find that accidental or negligent insiders are just as dangerous.

Negligence and accidents

Being security aware is something that must be instilled as a second nature response. The alternative is that insiders forget to double-check important routines; for example, a negligent employee might email sensitive data to the wrong person or leave sensitive documents on a printer. Unencrypted work devices are another area that can leave data at risk. If an employee regularly travels, the risk of leaving a phone or laptop on a train or in an airport increases. If that device falls into the wrong hands, all the data and corporate app access are at risk.

Malicious insiders

Disgruntled employees are one form of an employee who takes advantage of leaving a company to commit a harmful act. However, some employees are purposefully malicious, seeking opportunities to steal data and sell corporate secrets. Recruiting insiders to carry out malicious activities is nothing new; industrial espionage is as old as industry.

However, the modern recruitment of employees by cybercriminals is now digital. Cybercriminals will often attempt to contact a specific employee, such as those with privileged access to the network, or use tools such as social media or online forums (including the dark web) to connect with insiders; the potential recruit will be offered large sums of money to help them install ransomware or steal data.

The workaround insider

Some people find security practices inconvenient to themselves. If so, they will likely flout security policies and find workarounds that allow them to continue practising poor security behaviours. The result is the same, exposure data or misused access credentials, often shared with co-workers for convenience. One 2022 study showed that 62% of employees shared passwords via text or email.

Supply chain insiders

Supply chains, vendors, consultants, and others may be off the payroll. However, they are still an insider threat as they often have access to corporate apps and sensitive information: spear phishing attacks often target supply chain staff for this very reason. In addition, many infamous cyber-attacks have been traced to a supplier. One example is the supply chain attack on General Electric (GE); in 2020, cybercriminals gained unauthorised access to an email account at a GE partner company; the account exposed sensitive information on GE employees.

Five Strategies to Mitigate Insider Threats

Whatever the origin of an insider threat, there are ways to prevent insider threats:

Create a culture where security matters

A security culture is one where security becomes a deeply ingrained part of working life. If a culture of security is achieved, it will minimise the risks associated with accidental or negligent insiders. A culture of security changes poor security behaviours, empowering employees with the knowledge to handle security risks, rather than solely relying on your security team. Effective security awareness is about placing people as central to maintaining a secure environment; rather than apportioning blame, an effective security culture will empower and enable employees and may even help them to identify and handle malicious employees.

Build trust with your wider employee and non-employee base

Changing the security behaviour of people who cannot be bothered with security as they see it interfering with their jobs is challenging. To help mitigate the risks of security workarounds, an organisation should work to build a trusted working relationship with employees, suppliers, and others. For example, security awareness training should be designed to create relationships that chime with the trainee by using content that focuses on specific roles and risks. Also, providing well-designed security tools based on an excellent user experience and are simple to use will help stop employees and others from looking for workarounds.

Carry out security awareness training regularly

People tend to forget training unless it is performed regularly. A USENIX study on how regular training impacts the effectiveness of Security Awareness Training found that employees’ initial training lasted around four months; after six months, employees could not spot phishing emails. Information security training can often help to detect insider threats before they cause real damage.

Have a robust process for leaving employees

Malicious employees, including those leaving the organisation, are tricky to handle. One of the most effective ways to include these employees in your strategies for mitigating insider threats is to have robust processes that ensure employees who leave have access to their accounts promptly removed.

Tools for malicious employee mitigation

Malicious employees will actively cover their tracks, which can be challenging to detect. Use tools and processes that implement a ‘zero trust’ approach to security; these processes will use the principle of least privilege to control access to sensitive data and the corporate network. Security tools such as Data Loss Prevention (DLP) solutions can help mitigate malicious and accidental insider threats.

Remember your wider supply chain

Remember your suppliers, contractors, and other third parties when carrying out security awareness training and deploying zero trust security tools. Ensure that your broader user base understands their role in security and privacy; apply role-based security training and phishing simulations that teach suppliers and consultants how to spot spear phishing and social engineering aimed at their employees.

Mitigating insider threats is challenging as the threats take on many forms, from accidental to malicious; detecting and preventing this spectrum of attacks requires a combination of human and technology measures. These solutions include human-centric security awareness training, role-based phishing simulations, robust security processes, and security solutions such as zero trust. However, when used as a 360-degree approach to the insider threat, this combination of human-centric measures and technology is a powerful way to mitigate these insidious threats.

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