Next named exclusive Trail Blazer in NEW 2024 Radicati DLP Market Quadrant Report Read the Report
Updated: Feb 5, 2024   |   Vick Sandhu

What is an insider threat, and what are some examples?

Go back

One of the most critical activities an organization engages in is protecting its valuable data resources from being compromised or misused. When considering the threats that can impact an IT environment, the first thought is often directed toward external entities like hackers or organized cyber criminals. 

Unfortunately, insider threats also pose a significant risk to a company’s valuable data assets and intellectual property. According to, more than 34% of businesses worldwide are affected by insider threats each year, and Ponemon's 2022 Cost of Insider Threats: Global Report found that insider incidents grew by 44% from 2020 to 2022, making it a prevalent and growing concern for companies.

In fact, 66% of businesses say they consider malicious or accidental insider attacks more likely than external cyber attacks.

This post discusses insider threats, highlights some real-world examples of insider threats, and how they can affect a business. We’ll also look at the heightened danger of insider threats and how implementing a data loss prevention (DLP) solution can help mitigate their risk.

In this article: 

De‎finition of an insider threat

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security defines an insider threat as the threat that an employee or a contractor will use their authorized access, either intentionally or accidentally, to harm the security of an IT environment. 

Insider threats can come from trusted employees or third-party contractors hired to perform specific tasks for a company. Virtually anyone in an organization can present an insider threat.

Typically, there are numerous individuals within an organization who require a level of authorization that allows them to access and process sensitive information. 

In a perfect world, there would be no danger of this access being misused in any way. Unfortunately, in the real world, there are significant risks associated with the potential threats posed by insiders.

Th‎ree main types of insider threats

Organizations need to protect themselves against two different types of insider threats: malicious insiders, unintentional or accidental insiders, and negligent insiders. All of these are extremely dangerous and can put a company’s data resources and its ability to conduct business at risk.

Deliberate or malicious insider threats

Malicious insider threats occur when an individual makes deliberate attempts to compromise, steal, or corrupt enterprise data. They may leverage elevated permissions to access sensitive data resources that are not in the scope of their job. 

A malicious insider may take advantage of security lapses that can then be used to access valuable data surreptitiously. In some cases, the insider may also be responsible for misconfiguring the security controls that allow their unauthorized access.

The following are some examples of malicious insider threats.

  • An employee deliberately uses elevated system privileges to steal valuable data sets containing credit card holder information.
  • A departing employee commits intellectual property theft by downloading and printing sensitive enterprise data, intending to use the information to obtain a position with a rival company.
  • A disgruntled employee with access to a valuable database purposely corrupts the information.

Unintentional or accidental insider threats

Unintentional or accidental insider threats come from trustworthy employees who inadvertently put enterprise data resources at risk. In this case, the responsible individual is unaware of the risk that accompanies their activity.

The following are some examples of accidental insider threats. 

  • An employee mistypes an email address and inadvertently sends sensitive business information to a competitor.
  • An employee with insufficient knowledge of the company’s data handling policy accidentally exposes sensitive information and causes a data breach.
  • Employees use approved cloud applications to streamline their jobs but inadvertently expose enterprise intellectual property.

Negligent insider threats

Negligent insider threats differ from accidental insider threats in that the responsible individual is aware of the proper security procedures but disregards them or takes shortcuts that bypass security measures, putting sensitive company data at risk.

The following are some examples of negligent insider threats.

  • A negligent employee does not take the time to ensure that sensitive documents are encrypted before emailing them to a colleague, despite being aware of the proper security procedure.
  • An employee who has been trained to avoid phishing attacks clicks on a hyperlink in an email from an unknown source, despite understanding the risk of doing so.
  • An employee emails a spreadsheet or document containing sensitive personal information to someone outside the company (their spouse or a friend) for help with formatting.  

Wh‎at is the most common type of insider threat?

The most common type of insider threat is the accidental insider threat. While not every insider is a threat, anyone who handles sensitive data presents a risk.

Accidental insider threats occur when employees or individuals unintentionally compromise data security through careless actions. These actions can include mistakenly sending sensitive information to the wrong recipient, falling victim to phishing attacks, or improperly disposing of confidential documents.

It is crucial for organizations to invest in employee training and awareness programs to minimize the occurrence of accidental insider threats and foster a security-conscious culture.

Wh‎y are insider threats particularly dangerous?

Insider threats present a substantial danger to any organization that has valuable data stored in its IT environment. They are harder to guard against than external threats for several reasons.

  • Employees need access to sensitive data when performing their jobs. This access can be misused deliberately or accidentally, posing risks to data security. 
  • Accidental insider threats can be initiated by trusted employees who would never think of deliberately harming the organization.
  • It’s virtually impossible to anticipate every way an employee or contractor could accidentally misuse data assets.

Ho‎w insider threats impact businesses

Insider threats can have severe consequences for businesses, including:

  1. Financial loss: Insider attacks can result in significant financial losses for organizations. Malicious insiders may steal valuable intellectual property, trade secrets, or customer data, leading to financial damages and loss of competitive advantage. Unintentional insiders, on the other hand, can cause financial harm through accidental data breaches or by falling victim to scams that result in financial losses for the company.
  2. Reputation damage: Insider threats can tarnish a company's reputation, resulting in a loss of customer trust and loyalty. Data breaches or leaks caused by insiders can result in negative publicity, legal repercussions, and damage to the brand's image. Rebuilding trust with customers and stakeholders can be a long and challenging process.
  3. Business disruption: Insider threats can disrupt your business operations, and recovering from these disruptions can be costly and time-consuming. Malicious insiders may intentionally disrupt critical systems, delete important files, or introduce malware that can cripple an organization's infrastructure. Even unintentional insiders can inadvertently cause system failures or data breaches, resulting in operational disruptions.

Re‎al-life examples of insider threats

To better understand the impact of insider threats, let's look at a few real-life examples:

  1. Edward Snowden: Perhaps one of the most well-known insider threats, Snowden was a contractor for the National Security Agency (NSA) who leaked classified documents in 2013. His actions exposed extensive surveillance programs and damaged the reputation of the NSA, leading to international backlash and increased scrutiny of government surveillance practices.
  2. TJX Companies: In 2007, TJX Companies, the parent company of retailers like T.J. Maxx and Marshalls, experienced a massive data breach. The breach was caused by hackers who exploited vulnerabilities in the company's wireless network, but it was later revealed that an insider had also played a role. The breach compromised over 94 million customer credit card numbers and resulted in significant financial losses and damage to the company's reputation.
  3. Chelsea Manning: Manning, a former intelligence analyst for the U.S. Army, leaked classified military and diplomatic documents to WikiLeaks in 2010. The leaked documents exposed sensitive information and caused diplomatic tensions. Manning's actions had far-reaching consequences, including damage to national security and strained international relations.
  4. Boeing: In 2017, a Boeing employee sent a spreadsheet containing sensitive personal information of 36,000 Boeing employees to his spouse for assistance with a formatting issue. Even though the information was not used or distributed by either the employee or his spouse, this unauthorized disclosure is considered a reportable data breach.

Ho‎w does a DLP solution protect against insider threats?

Person using laptop on a non-secure network posing an insider threat risk
Image by by bruce mars on Unsplash

A data loss prevention (DLP) platform can be an instrumental component of a comprehensive strategy to protect an organization against the risks of insider threats. A modern DLP solution such as the Reveal Platform by Next automates the enforcement of an organization’s data handling policy.  

Forcing a data handling policy to be followed by everyone in the organization protects against insider threats in two ways.

  • Trustworthy employees will be stopped from accidentally misusing sensitive data by the DLP tool. The employee can then be assigned additional training to help prevent the situation from occurring again.
  • Malicious attempts to subvert the data handling policy will be identified and the necessary action taken to prevent such attempts in the future.

Reveal provides endpoint agents powered by machine learning that identify anomalous behavior and protect enterprise data. Using multiple behavioral analytics algorithms to define typical vs. anomalous behavior patterns, Reveal delivers data protection that doesn’t rely on a connection to a separate analysis engine while all personal data remains on the device. 

Additionally, Reveal uses pseudonymization and other data minimization techniques and enables security teams to conduct scoped investigations of insider threats without compromising employees’ data privacy and confidentiality, fostering a positive security culture built on trust. The solution also furnishes user training at the point of risk with real-time alerts designed to reduce the risk of data loss. 

Implementing Reveal ensures that data resources cannot be deliberately or accidentally misused.

Talk to the DLP experts at Next and schedule a demo to see how Reveal can help protect your organization from the risks of insider threats.

Fr‎equently asked questions

Why are insider threats hard to address proactively?

Insider threats are hard to address proactively because a subset of employees require elevated privileges to perform their job duties. Therefore, limiting all access to sensitive data resources is impossible. There is always the potential for accidental or deliberate misuse of enterprise data by an employee or contractor.

Why are traditional security measures insufficient to address insider threats?

Traditional security measures are insufficient to address insider threats because they are focused on keeping unauthorized entities out of a computing environment. These defensive tactics consist of firewalls and intrusion detection solutions that identify external attempts to disrupt the infrastructure. They do not have the defensive capabilities to guard enterprise data resources from individuals who have already gained access to the environment.

How does a data handling policy help minimize the risk of insider threats?

Developing a data handling policy enables everyone in an organization to understand how specific data elements can be accessed and used. The policy can be used as the foundation of a DLP solution that automatically enforces the defined limitations on data access. In this way, a data handling policy is essential for protecting sensitive information from being misused by insiders.


See how Next protects your employees and prevents data loss