Guide to Insider Threats

What is an insider threat?

While it’s true that the digital age has conveyed numerous advantages to the enterprise, it is equally as true that it has introduced extremely destructive data breaches. And some of the most damaging security threats don’t originate from malicious outsiders or malware but rather from trusted insiders.

Insider threats present a high risk to every organization, no matter the size, industry, or location. Consequently, it’s imperative that you’re able to recognize the signs and indications of security risks so you can defend your network from paralyzing data breaches as well as data theft.

So, we’ve put together this guide to help you understand and defend again insider threats.

What is an insider threat?

An insider threat is a cyber security risk posed to an organization when a person with authorized access misuses that access to negatively affect the organization’s critical systems or data. However, this individual doesn’t necessarily have to be an employee – partners, third-party vendors, and contractors can also be consider insiders.

There are a number of different insider profiles, including:

  • Malicious employees – this employee knows exactly what he’s doing when he’s stealing information from the company. Often the motive is easy money, rather than an attempt to harm his employer. For instance, an employee might use sensitive information to commit identity theft or fraud for financial gain. Other times, an employee might divulge confidential company information because of philosophical or political motivations.
  • Negligent employees – many insider incidents are caused by careless employees who undermine their organizations by not complying with their business rules and policies, such as clicking on phishing links in emails, inadvertently emailing customer data to external parties, or logging on to the network through unsecured, public Wi-Fi connections. Unlike the bad actor, the negligent employee unknowingly puts the company at risk of a breach. This category also includes compromised employee devices.
  • Third-party contractors, vendors – these third-party companies that typically have access to your critical systems and data may or may not cause breaches intentionally. However, if they have weak security measures, cybercriminals could exploit their systems to infiltrate your network.
  • Business partners – you usually give your business partners the same level of access to your network and data as your employees and contractors. This increases the risk to your organization since the business partners could bypass the security controls you have in place to protect your systems and sensitive information.

Warning signs of insider threats

Warning signs of insider threats

Insider threats can damage your organization’s reputation and cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars as well as hurt the trust you had established with your employees, contractors, and business partners.

Although it’s difficult to spot internal threats, there are warning signs that can alert you to potential incidents before they happen, such as:

  • Changes in employees’ personalities and behaviors – these changes are frequently the first indications of trouble. Maybe your employees are speaking out about the fact that they’re unhappy at work or perhaps they’re no longer motivated to do their jobs. They may even openly discuss financial problems with co-workers. Other indicators include working longer hours, working on the weekends, and working remotely.
  • Employees leaving the company – sometimes when your employees quit, are laid off or fired, they decide to take your data with them. An employee may steal your intellectual property to gain a competitive advantage, benefit another entity, start a competing company, or for personal financial benefit.
  • Insiders accessing large amounts of data – keep an eye out for insiders – employees or otherwise – who are downloading massive amounts of data. It’s very easy for these malicious insiders to download a few terabytes of data remotely and distribute that data to others quickly.
  • Unauthorized insiders trying to access servers and data – many insiders will test the waters to determine exactly what systems and data they can access. In this case, warning signs include attempts by users to access servers and data they shouldn’t be accessing and/or requesting access to data that isn’t related to their roles or jobs.
  • Attempts by insiders to move data offsite – this includes insiders uploading large files to personal cloud applications, downloading large files to external storage devices, such as USB flash drives, or sending large numbers of emails with attachments outside the company.

Cutting-edge technologies to combat insider threats

Cutting edge technologies to combat insider threats

In the past, enterprises have implemented such technologies as firewalls and proxies to deal with external threats. However, as insider threats increase, cutting-edge technologies are being developed to handle these problems.

Some of these technologies include:

  • Data loss prevention – this software uses business rules to classify and protect confidential and critical information so that unauthorized users aren’t able to maliciously or accidentally share data that could put your organization at risk.
  • Machine learning – this artificial intelligence software uses algorithms to detect patterns. Because a user’s malicious actions can be spread across numerous systems and data points, it’s difficult to quickly detect these actions. However, using identifiable algorithms, machine learning combined with user behavior analytics can look for anomalies across data systems to more rapidly detect insider threats.
  • User behavior analytics (UBA) – this technology analyzes historical data logs to identify the traffic patterns caused by user behaviors. You can use the data that’s collected to create a baseline of normal behavior. Then when a user’s behavior deviates widely, you can address the threat. Read SoftActivity guide on UBA.
  • Privileged access management – this software helps you prevent authorized users from misusing their privileged access. Privileged access management technology monitors and authorizes privilege users in the key systems across the company. This software is critical in mitigating insider threats.

How to prevent insider threats

How to prevent insider threats

To protect your network and your confidential data, it’s imperative that you implement a system to detect insider threats.

Following these nine tips will help you ensure that your company is safe from malicious employees:

  1. Train your new employees and contractors on security awareness before allowing them to access your network. Also incorporate information about unintentional and malicious threat awareness into regular security training for all your workers.
  2. Watch for the movement of data as it travels within and outside your environment, e.g., as it moves onto devices or into the cloud. Encrypt sensitive corporate data at rest or as it’s traveling over a network using suitable software or hardware technology. That way if a rouge employee or third-party worker steals a hard drive from a server or captures traffic, for instance, that individual will be unable to access your confidential data.
  3. Address endpoint security by ensuring the physical security of employee devices as well as the corporate data stored on those devices.
  4. Monitor for shadow IT by looking for tools and apps that haven’t been approved by your IT and security teams because they may compromise your sensitive data.
  5. Set up third-party employees, including contractors, with temporary accounts that expire on specific dates, such as the end of their projects or contracts. This ensures that these individuals can’t access your systems after they finish their work. If necessary, you can always extend the expiration dates of those accounts.
  6. After staff members leave your company, be sure to remove their access to your network by disabling accounts as soon as possible. Your human resources staff as well as your employee managers should contact the IT department when employees leave, plan to leave, or are terminated.
  7. Implement a solid asset management solution that allows you to respond to a lost or stolen device immediately, preventing anyone from accessing the data or the network associated with that device.
  8. Choose strong security layers to back up your asset management tool with full disk encryption, endpoint anti-virus and anti-malware as well as a VPN to limit access to a device and the data that’s on it.
  9. Implement employee monitoring software that helps you reduce the risk of data breaches and the theft of your intellectual property by identifying careless, disgruntled, or malicious insiders. Employee monitoring software enables you to set rules to prevent employees from engaging in risky behaviors, such as emailing sensitive company information. The software also alerts you when employees are violating policies so you can put a stop to their actions. For more details read SoftActivity’s guide on employee monitoring.

How to build an effective insider threat program

How to build an effective insider threat program

An insider threat program enables you to anticipate and address any risky or destructive behavior before your systems and data are compromised.

Here are six steps to help you build an insider threat program:

  1. Understand your critical assets – ensure your technical and non-technical teams agree on which assets are the most critical. An asset is deemed critical if your enterprise couldn’t operate if that information or item is in the hands of your competitors. For information assets, you should document where they live, where they originate as well as who uses them. For physical assets, document where they’re located, e.g., in the office, in a remote location/third-party location and the types of data they process.
  2. Document and enforce controls and policies – your employees and others won’t take the policies and controls you have in place seriously if you don’t enforce them. Documenting your controls and polices will make it easier for individuals to follow them.

For instance, document the process to handle reports of phishing/spear phishing attempts, and designate a chain of command to prevent systems and sensitive data from being compromised. In addition, don’t dilute these policies and controls by not enforcing them consistently. Enforcing them in the same way for everyone will minimize the potential that some employees will think they’re being treated unfairly.

  • Monitor, respond to suspicious and disruptive behavior – teach your managers how to recognize and report on workplace behavior that’s not appropriate, especially when it comes to handling and processing data as well as violations of your organization’s email and social media usage policies, for instance.
  • Set up a security incident response team – this team will be responsible for preventing, detecting, and dealing with all security incidents, including insider threat. This team should include general IT and information security staff members and as well as members of the C-suite. Provide the team with policies and procedures to handle each situation. Ensure they have the proper training to keep up with the latest tactics and threats so they can identify insider threat as quickly as possible. The goal of this team is to handle the situation in a way that limits damage to your company and reduces recovery time and costs.
  • Conduct insider threat awareness training periodically – such training ensures that your employees are aware of the indicators of potential threats. These include erratic or unusual behavior as well as malicious activity, including fraud, sabotage, data exfiltration and espionage as well as unwitting violations of your company’s policies. You should conduct this training with 30 days after an employee is hired and then once a year for all employees.
  • Implement strict account management and password practices –preventing insider threats means you need to require that individuals use stronger passwords. You also need to implement specific policies and practices to identify users with larger numbers of permissions. Your password policy should include requirements for the length and complexity of users’ passwords as well as your  expectations for how/if passwords can be reused or shared.

How SoftActivity’s monitoring software can help with insider threats

Protect from insider threats - SoftActivity Monitor

SoftActivity Monitor is an employee monitoring solution for insider threat protection that helps organizations:

  • protect against IP theft and inappropriate computer use at work;
  • improve staff productivity;
  • keep computer usage records for compliance auditing purposes;
  • perform security incident investigations.

SoftActivity Monitor is very useful in preventing confidential data from leaving the network, while letting users focus on their core business. The software is completely invisible to monitored users and only administrators have the capability to install or remove the application.

SoftActivity Monitor enables admins to view any computer within a network in real time. It is capable of tracking activities such as websites visited, used apps, email, keystrokes logging, among others. The app also lets managers view multiple computers simultaneously, giving them ample time to troubleshoot potential problems even before they occur.

Additionally, you can get reports on how users spend their time at work as well as set up alerts that are triggered when users break your company’s computer/Internet usage policy. With SoftActivity Monitor, you can see disasters coming and prevent them from happening.

Download your SoftActivity Free Trial now!


The threats to your data and systems from insiders are real and they’re increasing. The insider threat is no longer an abstract concept, but something that will likely happen at any time.

But rather than accepting the inevitability of such an insider attack, you need to adopt a more aggressive stance toward combating the insider threat. The key part of this approach is implementing employee monitoring software to help identify careless, disgruntled, or malicious insiders so you can reduce the risk of data breaches and the theft of your intellectual property.

By SoftActivity Team