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Insider Threats: Types, Risks, How to Prevent Them

Insider Threats: Types, Risks, How to Prevent Them

Cyber threats have increased alarmingly over the last few years. From individuals to organizations, and government agencies, everybody is under constant threat of losing personal and business data. In this digital world, it doesn’t take an expert to understand that aspects like malware, ransomware, phishing, pharming, and more, all pose a significant risk to both organizations and individuals.

Businesses, in particular, need to take drastic measures to prevent cybercrimes. Of all threats that pose harm to an organization, insider threats are considered the most dreadful. Unlike other security risks that occur from the outside of an organization, insider threats originate within the organization. The internal actors involved in malicious activities could be a board member, business partner, consultant, or a former employee. It doesn’t always mean that the individual must be a current member of the organization.

According to the Verizon Data Breach Investigations Report generated in 2019, 34% of data breaches involved internal actors. So, it is a growing concern for businesses to keep their data protected not only from the outside entities but also from the internal entities.

No one can be trusted in this data-sensitive world. Businesses have to follow robust security measures and practices to keep their sensitive files away from any malicious employee. This is a highlight on insider threats and discusses on why it is a growing concern among organizations, and how to prevent them.

What are Insider Threats?

Insider threats are actually malicious behaviour by any vendor, an employee, an ex-employee, or even the janitor. Anyone who has valid access to confidential data files and network with malicious intention can be considered as an insider threat. The unfortunate reality about insider threats is that the people you trust with your systems and data are the ones responsible for them.

In other words, an insider threat can be seen as the potential of a company insider who had or has access to a company’s assets to use their access, either unintentionally or maliciously, to indulge in activities that could negatively impact the business.

Insider threat is also known as an insider attack as in some cases, the individual actually acts to compromise the organization’s computer system and network. Companies essentially focus more on tackling external threats, which makes them susceptible to insider threats. It could turn out to be a costly mistake if you disregard insider threats, leaving your sensitive information exposed. This is why it is vital that you understand different types of insider threats and what risks they pose so that you can develop a strategy to prevent or limit them altogether.

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Why is it risky for an organization?

Insider threats are the dangers inside the organization. They can be summarized in the following three drivers:

  • Ignorance/ Accidental– Employees whose lack of awareness of procedures, protocols, and data security exposes external threats to the organization
  • Negligent– Employees who weak approach to procedures, protocols, and data security exposes external threats to the organization
  • Malicious Intent– Employees who intentionally exploit and misuse their privileges like special access to harm colleagues or company

Let’s understand the risks an enterprise could face due to insider threat with the following examples:

  1. Multinational Bank: A malicious bank employee stole personal data and account information of 1 million users and provide them to a criminal organization
  2. Global Beverage company: An insider stole a hard drive filled with information related to company secrets
  3. Social Media: A malicious insider abuses his privilege to stalk women
  4. Reputed Automobile company: A security engineer sabotaged the networks and systems and sold proprietary data to the competitors and third parties

These are enough to understand the risks associated with insider threats. To protect your employees, data, systems, and facilities, you must prioritize insider threats and it should be viewed as a shared responsibility among the teams. While you may not be able to prevent it from happening entirely, you can minimize its probability and manage the impact. For this, you will have to understand the types of insider threats.

Types of Insider Threats

While an insider threat strictly describes malicious behavior, there is a defined spectrum of insider threats. Insider threats vary significantly in intent, access level, awareness, and motivation, hence they are not all alike. With each of its types, there are several technical and traditional controls that you can take to bolster identification and prevention. According to Gartner, there are essentially four different types of insider threats. They are:

  • Lone Wolf

As the name suggests, lone wolves prefer working independent. They act maliciously without any external manipulation and influence. If lone wolves have an elevated level of company privilege, they can be extremely dangerous. Job roles like DB admins and system administrators are highly likely to become insider threats. They should be monitored regularly regarding their activities. One perfect example of a lone wolf with Edward Snowden. He used his privilege to access classified systems and leaked information related to cyber espionage at the National Security Agency (NSA).

  • Collaborator

A collaborator is someone who cooperates with third parties like competitors and uses their privilege to access information and provide it to the competitors. Such insider threats steal proprietary information, causing disruption to normal business operations. They do this for monetary gains as the third parties shower them lots of money just to provide them with insights. The insights could be anything from the audience demographics to product design, sales strategy, and more.

  • Goof

Goofs are arrogant or ignorant users who do not act maliciously or show their intent but take potentially harmful choices. This type of insider threat believes it is exempt from security policies. It is surprising to know that the majority of insider accidents (about 90%) are caused by goofs. A goof can be a user or an employee who stores unencrypted personal information in a cloud storage account despite knowing that it is against the company’s security policy.

  • Pawn

Pawns are users who are manipulated into doing malicious activities. In the majority of cases, pawns prove to be insider threats unintentionally via social engineering or spear phishing. An employee may download malware to their system or disclose important credentials to someone unimportant, and more. They do such things unintentionally, and this is why they are called pawns.

How to Prevent Insider Threats?

  1. Monitor activity logs, emails, and files on your core data sources
  2. Identify and determine where the sensitive files are stored
  3. Find out who has access to particular files and data and who should truly have access to them
  4. You are advised to establish and maintain a least privilege model within your business model
  5. Apply security analytics and monitoring so that you are alerted on abnormal behaviors like increased file activity in sensitive folders
  6. Educate and train your employees regarding the importance of data security


Insider threats are omnipresent. While you cannot completely eradicate it, you can take certain preventive measures to minimize the loss. The objective is to understand the security risks, both from outside or inside the organization. From implementing latest and advanced security measures to spreading more awareness among the employees about the new security protocol, being proactive and vigilant is the only way to prevent insider threats.


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