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Updated: Oct 6, 2023   |   Fergal Glynn

How to detect insider threats to protect valuable data resources

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Insider threats pose a serious risk to a company’s information security. It is imperative that an organization take the necessary measures to address these risks and attempt to detect insider threats before they cause damage. 

In this article, we’ll look at methods and best practices designed to help detect insider threats. This, in turn, will allow you to take effective and practical steps to protect business-critical systems, data, and enterprise intellectual property.

In this article: 

Wh‎y it’s important to detect insider threats

Insider threats are increasing at an alarming rate and pose a serious threat to the security measures a company puts in place. These threats may be deliberate attempts made by malicious insiders to steal data or cause damage to company infrastructure. 

Insider threat risks can also come from accidents or negligent insiders who are otherwise trustworthy employees. As such, insider threats can be viewed as a symptom of larger organizational issues, such as poor communication, lack of trust, or inadequate training.

The potential danger of insider threats is increased by the fact that these individuals already have some degree of access to the IT environment. An insider is always just a few clicks away from causing a data breach (either intentionally or accidentally) or an outage of mission-critical applications. 

Unfortunately, there's no magic solution to detecting all insider threats, and companies must be aware of the indicators of potential problems before they become a liability.

In‎‎dicators of insider threats

The first step in detecting insider threats is to understand the indicators that something is amiss. Companies need to effectively address the following common indicators that may signal the presence of an insider threat.

  • Anomalous user behavior: Unusual login behavior can indicate a threat by malicious insiders. A malicious insider, or someone masquerading as an insider, may be trying to access systems or data resources at odd hours or from remote locations that are not typically used under normal circumstances.
  • Repeated access attempts: Repeated attempts to gain unauthorized access to applications and data is also an indicator. These attempts may be made by a malicious or compromised insider or a misguided employee who does not understand the level of access they have been granted.
  • Changing technology configurations: Changing configurations of technologies for insider threat detection may indicate an attempt to bypass security measures.
  • Excessive downloads: Individuals downloading excessive amounts of data may be collecting resources to leverage for financial gain or to take with them when leaving for a new job. It's also possible that a newcomer to a company is bringing data with them from a previous job, which would be a liabilty to the new employer. Attempting to download or print data to remote devices that are not usually used for this purpose should also be looked at suspiciously.
  • Requests for privilege escalation: Individuals requesting elevated privileges that are not aligned with their current job requirements are another potential indicator of an insider threat. Employees should only have the minimum level of access needed to perform their jobs.
  • Non-technical indicators: Employees may display non-technical indicators of a potential insider threat. Personal issues such as overwhelming financial burdens, or anger over real or imagined transgressions by management, can cause a trustworthy employee to consider unlawful action. Repetitive cases of abusive behavior or conflicts with colleagues and superiors can also be red flags.

De‎tecting insider threats is challenging

Detecting insider threats is crucial for organizations to protect their sensitive data and information systems. However, detecting insider threats can be challenging, especially when security tools and solutions are primarily focused on identifying and preventing external threats. Many insider actors have extensive knowledge of the organization's network settings, security policies, and vulnerabilities, making it harder to detect their suspicious behavior.

According to Ponemon's 2022 Cost of Insider Threats Global Report, the average time to contain an insider threat incident is 85 days—an increase from 77 days in 2020. There are significant costs involved in detecting and mitigating insider threats. However, organizations can increase their chances of uncovering malicious activity by studying insider threat techniques and applying diverse detection methods.

Bu‎ilding a successful insider threat program

Successfully detecting insider threats requires a multifaceted approach that addresses the wide variety of indicators, and unfortunately, there is no single method of identifying all the potential threats that might plague an organization.

It is crucial to have a combination of human observation and technological elements, such as data loss prevention solutions, identity and access management, and network monitoring tools, to promptly identify potential incidents. The following methods can go some way toward mitigating the risks.

  • Network monitoring: Monitoring network activity can help identify insider threats related to unusual logins, unauthorized attempts to access applications, and excessive data downloads. The monitoring needs to encompass all internal and external attempts to access IT resources to guard against insider threats.
  • User activity monitoring: User activity monitoring is a crucial method for detecting insider threats, particularly employee negligence and opportunistic insiders. It monitors all types of user activities, including not just network activity but all the actions users take related to systems, data, and applications. By monitoring user actions and comparing them to security rules, monitoring tools can identify violations and send alerts to security teams.
  • Identity and access management: Strong identity and access management procedures are necessary to ensure employees do not have unfettered access to sensitive data or business-critical systems. The administrators responsible for granting permissions need to verify that the requestor has a business need for the privileges. If they do not, the request should be denied. Repeated requests for the same privileges may well point to an insider threat.
  • Physical observation: Personal observation by coworkers and management may be able to identify troubled employees who may be displaying indications of becoming an insider threat. Individuals who are always complaining about not having enough money or being passed over for a promotion may be contemplating stealing data resources for personal financial gain.
  • Data loss prevention: Data loss prevention software automatically enforces an organization’s data handling policy to prevent assets from being intentionally or accidentally misused. An effective DLP platform will prevent unauthorized individuals from gaining access to sensitive information.

DLP and insider threat management tools can observe and analyze data actions for insider threat detection and identification. By utilizing advanced technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning algorithms, and analytics, these programs establish baseline behavior patterns for privileged users and devices, enabling the early detection of anomalous behavior that may indicate illicit activity from an insider.

Prompt analysis of alerts and gathering relevant information can help determine the scope and severity of the incident, enabling effective response and mitigation.

Additionally, successful insider threat programs emphasize the importance of collaboration between IT security and HR, as well as ongoing training and education for employees to recognize and report potential insider threats.

Organizations should also invest in creating a positive work environment that reduces the likelihood of such threats occurring. Regular audits and assessments ensure the continuous improvement and adaptation of the program.

Ho‎w Next helps detect insider threats

A computer user sits with one hand on the keyboard and one on the mouse.
Photo by Anete Lusina via Pexels

The Reveal Platform by Next is a modern data loss prevention solution that can be instrumental in detecting and managing insider risk. It’s a cloud-native platform that can be deployed quickly to provide visibility into an organization’s data resources. Reveal also dynamically identifies and classifies data as it is ingested into the environment.

The tool baselines activity at deployment and employs behavioral analytics algorithms to identify anomalous behavior and DLP violations. It also provides user training at the point of risk to help minimize accidental insider threats and increase security awareness.

Contact the DLP experts at Next and schedule a demo to see how Reveal can help you protect your IT environment from internal and external threats.

Fr‎equently asked questions

Why are insider threats hard to detect?

Insider threats are hard to detect because they come from inside the organization, so it’s not as simple to identify malicious or risky behavior. Employees and contractors need legitimate access to systems and information to do their jobs. It can therefore be difficult to determine when an individual is simply trying to perform valid tasks and when they have become a threat to the environment.

How can a company prevent an insider from printing sensitive information at home?

A company can prevent insiders from printing sensitive or restricted information by creating a data handling policy that defines the legitimate usage of enterprise data resources. The policy will enable decision-makers to control who, where, and for what reason data assets are accessed. Sensitive information can be restricted from being printed on unauthorized devices such as an insider’s home printer.

How does DLP help guard against accidental insider threats?

Data loss prevention helps guard against accidental insider threats by enforcing a company’s data handling policy. Trustworthy employees who may inadvertently attempt risky activities such as sending unencrypted data over a public network will be prevented from completing the action. An effective DLP solution eliminates the possibility of users accidentally causing harm to the environment.


See how Next protects your employees and prevents data loss