The workplace is often considered a safe environment where colleagues trust each other and work towards common goals. It is an environment where we rely on the integrity and professionalism of those we interact with daily. But what happens when those very individuals, once considered confidants, turn their backs on us and embrace the dark side of their professional lives? Like the infamous betrayal of Julius Caesar by his trusted friend Brutus, we too may find ourselves echoing the lament, “Et tu, Brute?”
Understanding the Insider Threat
Definition of an insider: An insider refers to an individual who has authorized access to an organization’s systems, data, or confidential information. Often enough this individual can decide to abuse and misuse their privileged access for financial, selfish or vengeful reasons.
Types of insiders: Traditionally, there are three major classifications of insider threats; malicious, accidental and compromised insiders. This classification and others vary depending on the intent behind the actions of the insider. Insiders can include charismatic colleagues, influential supervisors, external collaborators, or even third-party contractors who have gained trust within an organization.
Motivations behind insider threats: Insiders may be driven by several reasons; personal gain, revenge, ideology, or coercion. Whichever it is, the end goal of all insider threats remains fundamentally the same; to steal data, leak stolen data, exploit vulnerabilities and gain access to confidential information.
Common methods used by insiders: Insiders employ a range of techniques to carry out their malicious activities, capitalizing on their authorized access to sensitive and often critical resources. They may engage in data theft, sabotage, fraud, or even espionage.
Recognizing the Warning Signs
Warning signs are suspicious and observable patterns and trails that insider threat actors exhibit and/or leave behind. These can either be digital or behavioural.
Digital Warning Signs:
In today’s digitally-driven world, insiders often leave a trail of digital footprints that can provide valuable insights into their activities. By being able to identify these digital warning signs, we can uncover potential insider threats before they cause significant damage. These digital warning signs are;
Unusual data access patterns: Keep an eye out for employees who frequently access files, databases, or systems outside their normal job responsibilities. An excessive number of access requests or accessing sensitive data during working or non-working hours can be indicators of suspicious behaviour.
Unauthorized installation or use of software: Monitor for instances where unauthorized software installations or unusual applications are observed on company devices. These actions may indicate attempts to bypass security measures, install malicious software, or engage in unauthorized activities.
Abnormal network behaviour: Unexplained network traffic, especially during off-hours, can be indicative of an insider engaged in unauthorized data transfers or attempts to infiltrate the organization’s systems. Unusual network activity patterns or unauthorized network connections should be promptly investigated.
Unusual Logins outside of designated work hours: Often enough, insider threat actors conduct most of their activities outside of official work hours. This is often to cause less suspicion and give the insider threat more time to carefully conduct their malicious activities.
Behavioural Warning Signs:
In addition to digital clues, observing changes in behaviour and actions can also provide valuable insights into potential insider threats. These behavioural warning signs can act as red flags, prompting further scrutiny and investigation.
Sudden and unexplained financial difficulties: Individuals facing financial hardships may be susceptible to engaging in fraudulent activities for personal gain. Look for signs of financial stress, such as unexplained debt, lavish spending, or attempts to access company funds improperly.
Displaying disgruntlement or a sense of entitlement: Insiders with unresolved grievances or feelings of being mistreated within the organization may be motivated to seek revenge or exploit their position for personal gain. They may exhibit a sudden change in attitude, become increasingly negative or confrontational, or display an unwarranted sense of entitlement.
Excessive secrecy and unexplained secrecy: Insiders may become overly secretive about their work activities, projects, or interactions with others. They may restrict access to their workspace or digital files more than necessary. Similarly, unexplained secrecy regarding their personal life or sudden changes in privacy settings on social media can raise suspicion.
Abnormal interest in sensitive information: An insider with malicious intent may exhibit an unusual and persistent interest in accessing or discussing sensitive information beyond their job responsibilities. They may inquire about confidential projects, attempt to gather competitive intelligence or show an abnormal fascination with data breaches or security measures.
Steps to Take if You Suspect an Insider:
If you find yourself suspecting that a colleague may be involved in criminal activities, it is essential to handle the situation with caution and follow the appropriate steps. By taking prompt action, you can help mitigate potential risks and protect your organization’s integrity. Here are the recommended steps to follow:
Before taking any action, collect tangible evidence that supports your suspicions. Document any specific incidents, conversations, or behaviours that seem suspicious or out of the ordinary. This evidence will be vital when reporting your concerns to the appropriate authorities within your organization.
Report your suspicions:
Once you have gathered sufficient evidence, it is crucial to report your suspicions to the designated authorities within your organization. This may include your supervisor, human resources department, or a dedicated security team. Provide them with a clear and concise account of your observations, along with any supporting evidence. Be prepared to provide specific details, names, dates, and locations to aid in the investigation process.
While it is essential to report your suspicions, it is equally important to maintain strict confidentiality throughout the process. Avoid discussing your concerns with co-workers or individuals who may be involved. By preserving confidentiality, you can protect the integrity of the investigation and prevent potential harm to yourself or others.
Cooperate with investigations:
If an investigation is launched based on your report, it is essential to fully cooperate with the authorities involved. Provide any additional information or evidence that may assist in their efforts. Answer their questions truthfully and to the best of your ability. Your cooperation will contribute to a thorough and effective investigation.
In situations where you suspect your safety may be at risk, take appropriate measures to ensure your protection. This may involve informing security personnel or relevant authorities within your organization about any potential threats or concerns. Your safety should always be a priority.
Even after reporting your suspicions and cooperating with investigations, it is crucial to remain vigilant. Keep an eye out for any further suspicious activities or behaviours. Report any new information or developments to the appropriate authorities promptly.
Remember, the process of handling a suspected insider threat should be entrusted to the designated professionals within your organization.
Mitigating Insider Threats
While it is often challenging to 100% prevent cyber-attacks caused by insider threats, having policies in place can help reduce the risks posed by insider threats. Some of the best practices to adopt are;
- Adopt AI-driven User and entity behaviour analytics (UEBA) to spot sudden changes in the behavioural pattern of employees
- Patch vulnerabilities to prevent exploitation.
- Conduct cybersecurity awareness training for all staff on a scheduled basis.
- Follow the best practices of email security.
- Invest in multiple security controls, especially software that classifies content in files and monitors all file events taking place on a user’s system, allowing for automatic logging and intervention any time a user takes prohibited actions.
- Reduce the attack surface within an organization by deploying Attack Surface Management Software (ASM).
- Adopt the principle of least privilege to ensure authorized individuals only have access to the data required for them to successfully carry out their work.
Insiders within organizations can pose significant threats, jeopardizing the integrity, security, and success of a company. Recognizing the warning signs and taking appropriate action is essential in mitigating the risks associated with insider threats. By understanding the motivations behind insider threats and being vigilant in our workplaces, we can contribute to a safer and more secure environment. Trust is valuable, but maintaining a watchful eye is equally important in today’s interconnected world.