Detecting insider threats comes down to four critical procedures:
- Scanning for vulnerabilities to be exploited internally
- Understanding the motives behind internal threats
- Monitoring for signs of intentional internal threat activity
- Maintaining vigilance through cybersecurity awareness training
Step 1: Monitor Vulnerabilities Ripe for Exploitation
It might seem counter-intuitive, but the first thing you’ll need to do to detect threats is focus on a different area altogether: the kinds of weaknesses that those threats would exploit. In a security context, vulnerabilities are gaps in cyberdefense infrastructure that could be targeted by a threat actor or threat vector to undermine protections and compromise your systems. So, starting with these means understanding where a threat would materialize so that you know where to look.
Vulnerabilities that are especially prone to internal threats typically revolve around access control, transparency, and activity logging infrastructure. Internal threats exploit loopholes in identity and access management (IAM), such as lax account retention policies after employees are terminated. They also take advantage of limited or missing visibility over account activity, which allows illicit access to turn into actions such as unauthorized edits or deletions. And internal attackers leverage their knowledge of monitoring and reporting protocols to evade detection for as long as possible. Scan these areas for indicators of an internal threat.
The next steps will be about identifying (and neutralizing) the threats and threat actors that would spring upon these vulnerabilities if given the chance, causing a cyber security breach.
Step 2: Identify Motives for Potential Attackers
Another critical factor in understanding what internal threats exist in your systems is knowing why they exist—why individuals or groups thereof would exploit vulnerabilities. Almost every cybercrime is financially motivated, with Verizon’s 2023 DBIR reporting that about 95% of cyber attacks in 2022 were committed for financial gain. However, that remaining ~5% is dominated by motives common to internal threats specifically, such as interpersonal and political dynamics.
Ultimately, there are two major insider threat types you need to be concerned about:
- Intentional internal threats – These are generally disgruntled employees, current or former, who are seeking out ways to financially harm the organization. They may also be seeking financial gain for themselves, but these aims are often secondary. Their grudges might influence them to work with experienced outside attackers, heightening the risk.
- Unintentional internal threats – These come from employees whose negligence of cybersecurity best practices compromises sensitive data and systems. Lacking vigilance is less a motive proper than a warning sign, but it needs to be detected and mitigated regardless. External attackers also leverage these individuals, unbeknownst to them.
The next two steps are devoted to neutralizing these threat factors, respectively.
Step 3: Scan for Potential Disgruntled Threat Actors
By default, employees’ access to their accounts should be terminated immediately upon termination. Monitor for outstanding, duplicate, or otherwise unaccounted-for user profiles frequently, reporting and revoking them as soon as possible unless there is an explanation.
But note that not all intentional internal threats come from former employees; many are leveraged by current staff. So, you should regularly assess employee satisfaction with digital infrastructure and with the organization at large to identify—and mitigate—frustrations.
On a more technical level, special attention should be paid to the accounts and behavior of any employees for whom red flags have been raised by managers or HR. Any difference in their activity, no matter how banal, could be indicative of current or future nefarious plotting.
If any employees are engaged in anomalous or suspicious activity, more stringent access controls and monitoring should be applied to their accounts. Actions that would previously be authorized automatically can trigger additional authorization checks. And access sessions should be limited, forcing re-authentication at regular intervals. In the most critical cases, employees may be placed in a probationary period wherein all account access is revoked.
Step 4: Assess Employee Awareness and Vigilance
After covering your bases in terms of potential internal attackers, you’ll also need to account for individuals whose ignorance or negligence could compromise your sensitive data and systems.
On the one hand, these threats might be more akin to vulnerabilities—insiders practicing cybersecurity so poorly that they become targets of social engineering scams from outside.
But on the other hand, these employees constitute threats in and of themselves. Their actions can directly compromise a piece of sensitive data by making it accessible to someone who doesn’t have the authority to view it. Regardless of their intention or lack thereof, such a breach of privacy could constitute a violation in the eyes of data subjects or regulatory authorities.
Fortunately, the best method for identifying potential unintentional threats is also the best way to mitigate them: cyber security awareness training. Employees should be assessed with tests and practical exercises both during onboarding and then at regular intervals throughout their tenure.
Sound cybersecurity governance ensures that the right infrastructure is in place to keep data safe and employees are positioned to use it effectively. Working with a virtual chief information security officer (vCISO) is one of the best ways to optimize all elements of your deployment, including detecting and minimizing risk factors related to the human element.
Optimize Your Insider Threat Detection Today
Ultimately, there are many types of data breaches, and no two can be expected to operate in the same ways. Whether a breach comes from a coordinated attack involving external and internal stakeholders, or it happens because an employee unwittingly uploads a document to the wrong place, the results can be similar. That’s why you need to identify threats and vulnerabilities where the call is coming from inside the house—to stop them before they become incidents.
At RSI Security, we know that security discipline creates freedom. We’ll help your organization identify and mitigate all insider threat types and keep your data secure. To learn how, get in touch today!