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Updated: Jan 9, 2024   |   Toby Bristow

6 strategies to defend against insider threats in cybersecurity

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Insider threats pose a serious risk to the security and integrity of virtually all IT environments. In many ways, insider threats are more dangerous and difficult to address than attacks initiated by external threat actors.

Companies must adopt effective strategies to defend against insider threats in cybersecurity and to protect their mission-critical systems, valuable data, trade secrets, and other intellectual property.

Wh‎at is an insider threat in cybersecurity?

Employees connecting to company network from an unsecured Wi-Fi connection in a coffee shop

An insider threat in cybersecurity is a threat that originates with an organization’s authorized users. This includes employees, contractors, and business partners who deliberately or unintentionally misuse their authorized access to company resources and sensitive information. 

Insider threats can also arise from legitimate accounts that are compromised by internal or external threat actors.

Intentional insider threats are often perpetrated to obtain financial gain or cause deliberate damage to business applications and operations. Accidental insider threats are typically the result of negligence or poor training. Both types of insider threats can have devastating consequences for the affected organization.

Insider-related incidents can have a significant financial impact on organizations, with the average cost of an insider risk growing from $15.4 million in 2022 to $16.2 million in 2023. However, many security teams may not fully recognize the financial implications of insider attacks.

In a study conducted by Cybersecurity Insiders in 2020, 50% of respondents estimated that dealing with or mediating an insider attack would cost less than $100,000. In addition to monetary loss, organizations also have to allocate significant time and resources to investigate and remediate the incident, diverting attention from more strategic activities.

Th‎e challenge of minimizing insider threats

Users with privileged access to sensitive company data and resources working in an office

Minimizing insider threats is a major challenge in any IT environment. Insider threats are particularly challenging to defend against because insiders inherently require a higher level of trust and access to perform their duties. This access can be accidentally or intentionally used to exfiltrate data, degrade system performance, or otherwise cause harm to an organization, making it difficult to detect insider threats.

These threats can take various forms, including malicious insiders seeking financial gain, careless employees who inadvertently cause breaches, or disgruntled or former employees seeking to disrupt the organization.

It’s impossible to run a business without exposing the computing environment to the risks of insider threats, and operations would grind to a halt if nobody in the organization had access to data resources.

To prevent insider threats, organizations should establish a security policy, conduct employee screenings, and develop a comprehensive employee offboarding procedure. Setting baseline company-wide policies that reinforce strong IT security practices is crucial.

By implementing these measures, organizations can mitigate the risk of insider threats and prevent unauthorized access to critical data and sensitive information.

Ef‎fective strategies to protect against insider threats

Person entering a one-time authorization code for multi-factor authentication

‎Following are six effective strategies that help protect an organization from insider threats. Implementing these best practices will strengthen a company’s defenses and help secure valuable IT resources.

Identify sensitive and valuable data resources

It’s impossible to effectively address insider threats without obtaining visibility into the IT environment. Organizations must be able to identify all data resources as they are accessed and used and classify them according to their sensitivity and value to the business. High-value data should receive extra protection by requiring business justification before access is granted.

Treating all data similarly makes it easy for privileged users to accidentally or intentionally misuse critical information and damage the organization. New data ingested into the environment also needs to be classified so it can be protected effectively.

Enforce robust authentication and authorization procedures

Procedures must be in place to ensure that only authorized personnel have access to valuable data resources. Companies should consider implementing a policy of least privilege in which access is only provided to systems and data resources when required by the business. Attempts at unauthorized access should be flagged for investigation.

Multi-factor authentication reduces the risk of malicious insiders using compromised credentials for nefarious purposes. Users will need to be authenticated in multiple ways before gaining access to IT resources, but the extra time taken is well worth the additional protection.

Develop an organizational data handling policy

Companies should develop a data handling policy that applies to everyone in the organization. The policy should spell out who can use specific data resources and how they can be used for business purposes. 

Violations of the data handling policy will need to be addressed, preferably with an automated data loss prevention (DLP) platform.

Implement comprehensive user training programs

User training regarding the data handling policy is essential to reduce unintentional insider threats. Employees need to understand how they can use data safely so they will avoid making costly mistakes. Ideally, training should also be provided when a policy violation occurs.

Monitor potential insider threat indicators

Organizations have to be aware of insider threat indicators and to take action when necessary, as abnormal or suspicious activity may be a sign of an insider threat. For instance, an employee repeatedly attempting to access restricted data could either be insufficiently trained or be trying to steal company data. 

Requests for elevated privileges that do not align with an individual’s job function may also point to a potential insider threat.

Deploy a data loss prevention solution

A DLP solution defends against insider threats by automatically enforcing the organization’s data handling policy and restricting unauthorized access to IT resources. It eliminates the potential for trusted insiders to make data-handling mistakes that put the business at risk.

Re‎veal: An advanced DLP platform

‎Overall, proactive management of insider threats through understanding motivations and conducting threat assessments is essential in preventing harmful incidents. By implementing best practices such as appropriate policies, training, systems, and oversight, organizations can effectively defend against insider threats and minimize the potential damage they can cause.

The Reveal platform by Next is an advanced data loss prevention platform that incorporates cutting-edge technology and offers customers an effective method of defending against insider threats. The following features make Reveal an excellent choice in DLP software.

  • Next-gen endpoint agents powered by machine learning are used to identify and categorize data at the point of risk, as it enters the environment.
  • Behavioral analytical algorithms define typical versus anomalous behavior to identify insider threat indicators.
  • Reveal enforces the data handling policy and can take autonomous actions such as alerting, blocking, screenshotting, or isolating an endpoint based on the level of risk of an action.
  • User training is provided at the point of risk via popup messages when the data handling policy is violated. In addition to restricting or redirecting the forbidden activity, Reveal offers user training to minimize recurrences of the mistake.

Get in touch with Next and schedule a demo to see how Reveal makes it easy to protect your environment from insider threats.

Fr‎equently asked questions

Why is user training important in defending against insider threats?

User training is important in defending against insider threats because accidental or unintentional insider threats can be just as dangerous as deliberate malicious activity. Cybersecurity awareness training is essential to reduce accidents and mistakes that put valuable IT resources at risk. Emphasizing this training with on-point messages, such as those generated by Reveal, supports the enforcement of a data handling policy.

How does Reveal detect anomalous or suspicious behavior?

Reveal begins baselining activity at deployment and builds a database of the typical and permitted actions performed by employees in an IT environment. Activities that do not conform to the norm are identified as being potentially dangerous. For example, attempting to print sensitive customer information on an unauthorized printer would be flagged and not permitted by the DLP platform.

Why should a business implement multi-factor authentication?

A business should implement multi-factor authentication (MFA) to protect itself from the accidental or deliberate misuse of compromised credentials. If a threat actor steals a username and password, it is not enough to gain access to systems protected by MFA. The individual would also need to compromise the additional authentication methods, making it much more difficult to perpetrate suspicious activities.

How do you respond to insider threats?

Defending against insider threats requires a comprehensive approach. Organizations can implement best practices such as employee education and awareness training, access control and privilege management, leveraging tools for monitoring user behavior and detecting anomalies, establishing incident response and reporting procedures, and implementing a data loss prevention solution.

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