Many organizations have succeeded in building an incredible security infrastructure to detect cyberattackers. This process involves creating a flexible architecture that enables business growth and protects it and a security team that works tirelessly to match pace with adversaries and mitigate risks and threats.

Sometimes the threat hits close to home. A recent survey from Ponemon found that the total average cost of insider threats to organizations in 2021 was $15.4 million. With distributed networks, remote workforces and new digital processes, the risks of insider data breaches are growing. 

What should organizations watch out for? The answer isn’t that simple. The stereotype of the rogue IT administrator who misuses privileged credentials to burrow through networks and exfiltrate data is just one profile. According to the same survey, criminal insiders accounted for 26% of recent incidents. Other staff may seek to steal credentials, just like outsiders, and use them to sabotage operations or commit fraud. These insiders accounted for 18% of attacks. 

While not as exciting, negligent behavior constitutes 56% of insider threats. These incidents are driven by poor worker security practices, such as sharing devices, clicking on phishing emails, not protecting information, and having computers or hard drives stolen.

Use Both Technical and People Sensors to Detect Insider Threats 

So, what should organizations do if leaders are concerned about insider threats? Surprisingly, the answer isn’t just to apply more technology.

A critical first step is to define the problem. IT and security leadership should work together to clearly define what insider threats mean for their organization, build a cross-functional coalition to address these risks and agree on proper governance. 

Next, it’s time to involve security teams who own the tooling that identifies many risks. These technical sensors, or platforms, can automate the discovery of anomalies that teams can then investigate. These issues include compromised credentials, lateral movement within networks, escalating privileges, account manipulation, data access abuse and destruction of audit logs and file data, among others. 

However, people sensors also provide important input that should be considered and combined with these technical sensors. Human resources (HR) teams and people managers understand organizational culture and employee engagement. They can mine data such as staff behavior on Zoom calls, poor performance reports and incident data. By doing so, they can identify issues like disengaged employees who are checking out at work, people who may be acting out or staff who are searching for new jobs at competitors while using their company devices. 

These working teams, or a broader governance group, can set up standing calls with HR and country or regional leadership to better understand employee sentiment and any areas of concern. Combined with threat intelligence, this information can help local leaders understand potential bad actors, their attack strategies and tactics, and how they’re changing. These local leaders can then feed this information back to IT and security teams, who can use it to proactively harden defenses and focus on the right threats.

Of course, organizations can only expect loyalty from staff if they have healthy cultures, pay them a fair wage, and offer career advancement prospects. Organizations that exploit staff will obviously be at greater risk for insider-outsider attacks than those that treat employees well. In addition, leadership must consider how contractors, vendors and third parties treat their employees, as these workers could potentially retaliate against their employers by harming customers. 

Why Organizations Should Build a Strong Risk-Aware Culture 

Many leaders are concerned about the optics of discussing insider risks, which sounds like they are spying on their employees and encouraging staff to do likewise. That’s why some are rebranding to discuss the risks that “trusted insiders” can create when they misuse credentials or exploit network gaps. The phrase “trusted insiders” implies that these individuals are responsible for upholding organizational faith in them and protecting network access and privileges and that there are consequences for not doing so. 

However they brand these threats, organizations should proactively communicate with employees about them. Many organizations are building a risk-aware culture and committing to evolving its maturity. This typically involves moving beyond a once- or twice-yearly training program to creating an ongoing risk awareness program that addresses key threats. These programs benchmark employee understanding of organizational risks, implement role- and topic-based communications and campaigns, streamline critical processes and measure progress. As part of this process, security leaders will also likely want to provide clear and transparent policies and updates, develop a central risk awareness portal with resources and publicize reporting processes. In addition, leaders will want to share what they do when they suspect a risk and the penalties for malicious behavior.  

How to Respond to Suspected Insider Threats 

So, what happens when organizations suspect an insider threat? One mistake organizations make is not having well-codified processes for reporting and investigating threats or placing this responsibility solely on security operations center (SOC) teams.

Instead, organizations should take the time to develop and codify reporting, investigation, and escalation processes that involve HR and security teams. SOC teams will analyze technical sensors and determine if insiders have malicious intent to steal data or cause operational disruption. If so, they will present a case to HR for escalating the incident, such as disabling accounts, locking down computers, and possibly considering additional corrective action.

In addition, organizations can conduct tabletop exercises on different incidents that could cause security risks. They can work to understand the intent of attackers, likely pathways they will take to achieve their objectives, and how incidents could escalate, using this information to evolve policies and processes. Issues may appear as malware or compromised credentials but, upon investigation, be revealed as negligent insider activity. 

By working together, HR, security teams, and business partners can envision new risks, learn from past incidents, and continue to improve processes. In this model, organizations use both technical and people sensors to protect their businesses and staff in a landscape of growing cyber threats.

Stay Apprised of Employee Risks and Motivations 

Even with well-defined processes and capabilities, insider incidents can occur. Poor information and device handling processes can put data at risk, or unhappy staff can retaliate against their employer. However, organizations that focus on creating a healthy culture, educating and empowering staff, and following preset transparent policies and protocols can reduce malicious and negligent insider incidents. 

By doing so, organizations can create a strong brand as a risk-aware culture that empowers employees and attracts customers, while minimizing the impact of data breaches and other losses.