Research has shown that insider threats can have a seismic impact on organizations of all sizes. When employees feel that their boss is watching their every move, it can reduce trust, create resentment and raise concerns about privacy rights. 

As the threat landscape continues to evolve, insider threats have increased in frequency and complexity. They’ve progressed from petty theft and sabotage to full-scale ransomware attacks against their own employer. Business and security leaders are feeling the pressure to shore up security programs and quell insider security threats without risking established relationships with employees. It is more important than ever for organizations to bolster security by developing and implementing a proactive insider threat program that preserves the trust of their teams. 

Understand the nature of insider threats 

An insider threat is defined as a perceived threat that comes from a person or cohort of people within an organization, who have intimate knowledge of the security practices, data or computer systems. An insider will use their authorized access, intentionally or unintentionally, to harm the department’s mission, resources, personnel, facilities, information, equipment, networks or systems. 

Insider threats can manifest in several ways. For example, an employee may accidentally send an email to the wrong person or improperly share sensitive company information due to negligence. However, in other instances, an employee may deliberately act against their current or former employer with malicious intent. There are many distinct types of insider threats, including theft of intellectual property or sensitive data, fraud and sabotage of systems, among others.

It’s important to differentiate the types of insider threats and manage each accordingly. Accidental threats can be mitigated with a combined effort of security protocols and education because employees are likely unaware of the potential harm they are bringing to the organization. Malicious threats need to be met with firm resistance and a strong, comprehensive insider threat program. 

Demystify preconceived fears

As organizations work to implement an insider threat program, one often overlooked area is employee trust. While companies must adhere to legal, regulatory and ethical considerations when setting up their insider threat programs, they also need to ensure that their security monitoring and countermeasures are legitimate, purposeful and compliant. Most importantly, business leaders must also respect the personal privacy of one of their most valuable assets — their people.

Employees are often wary that their supervisor may be using tools to monitor their productivity or micromanage, so it is important to reiterate that this is not the purpose of an insider threat program. The goal is to identify any misuse or conduct issues, intentional or accidental, and swiftly take the appropriate remediation strategies. These measures should be established within all conduct policies and procedures to ensure the well-being of all employees, customers and stakeholders. In addition to detective controls, insider threat programs should also provide preventive and supportive measures that proactively answer questions and enable positive employee sentiment.

Establish a long-term strategy

Human elements significantly contribute to the complexity of insider threats and each individual employee has a role to play in safeguarding an organization. While traditional, compliance-based security training and awareness programs provide a good framework for managing risk, they do not fully engage employees. These can quickly become remedial tasks that employees undertake on an annual basis, which has minimal positive impact on an organization’s security goals.

It is critical to approach insider threat program implementation and training with long-term security hygiene in mind. This requires sustained behavioral and cultural changes. Leaders should aim to continually educate and provide advice on emerging threats, with real-life, industry trends and examples. For instance, if a competitor just faced an insider threat attack, it is the perfect opportunity to talk with employees about what went wrong, how it could have been prevented, and reiterate the controls your organization has in place. 

Like anything new, enhanced security protocols can come with challenges and resistance. Communicating the intention of an insider threat program is the best way to introduce employees to the idea, establish a baseline of trust and foster cooperation. The overall goal is to reduce insider risk by ensuring the entire organization is safer, empowered and educated. The most effective way to accomplish this is by being clear and transparent in the program’s aims, objectives and requirements of employees. An open line of communication plays a pivotal role in the success of an insider threat program because it makes employees feel informed, engaged and aligned with organizational security goals.