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Updated: Jan 30, 2024   |   Alex Yong

What are unintentional insider threats and their risks?

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Insider threats are activities initiated from within an organization that pose a danger to sensitive or valuable data and resources. Threats from insiders—including unintentional insider threats—are potentially more damaging than those from external threat actors. Companies must be aware of these threats and the risks they present to their businesses.

In this guide, we'll take a closer look at unintentional insider threats and how you can reduce the risks.

In this article:

Tw‎o types of insider threats

Employee or contractor connecting to business resources via a VPN on a tablet

Two distinct types of insider threats have to be considered to effectively address their risks. They are closely related, in that all insiders have access to a company’s valuable resources with the potential to seriously damage a business. However, the reasons for or motivation behind the threats are very different.

Deliberate insider threats

As the name implies, these threats encompass the deliberate attempts of insiders to compromise or damage resources. These insiders may include current or former employees or contractors motivated by the promise of financial gain or to right some kind of real or perceived workplace grievance by exposing trade secrets or other intellectual property.

Organizations need to remain observant of changes in employee behavior that may indicate they potentially pose a deliberate insider threat.

Unintentional or accidental insider threats

Unintentional insider threats are the result of accidents or oversights made by otherwise trustworthy employees. Their actions unintentionally put company resources at risk and can be especially difficult to prevent. 

Since mistakes are inherent to virtually all human endeavors, they will be made by employees interacting within an IT environment, and it is impossible to completely eliminate the risk of mistakes that can harm a business.

In fact, according to the Ponemon Institute's 2022 Cost of Insider Threats Global Report, non-malicious insiders who are careless or negligent account for 56% of insider threats in companies. Examples of accidental or careless insider threats include employees failing to encrypt sensitive documents before transmitting them over the network, new employees exposing sensitive information due to a lack of knowledge about data handling policies, storing sensitive company data on unsecured personal devices, and falling victim to a phishing attack or other social engineering tactic.

Wh‎y unintentional insider threats and risks exist

Employee or contractor text messaging while accessing company data

Accidental insider threats and risks are extremely hard to eliminate—even more challenging than external threats—for two reasons:

  • Access to sensitive information is sometimes required. A subset of employees needs to have authorized access to data and IT resources despite their level of sensitivity or value. Business operations often require employees to interact with items that, if misused, could damage an organization. Companies could not exist without this access, making it impossible to fully protect resources from unintentional insider threats.
  • Mistakes are always possible. Regardless of an employee’s level of training or trustworthiness, there is always a chance they will make a mistake. It’s impossible to rule out the chance that an innocent mistake can have serious business repercussions.

Organizations need to take the proper precautions to help minimize the number of mistakes made and the effects they may have on the business. Failure to address the issue of unintentional insider threats is simply courting disaster.

Data leaks are the biggest risks associated with accidental insider threats. Unintentional actions can lead to a disastrous loss of sensitive data that can destroy a company. 

Re‎ducing the risks of unintentional insider threats

Person holding a graphic padlock icon, security concept

According to the Ponemon Institute's 2022 Cost of Insider Threats Global Report, insider threats, particularly those launched by compromised insiders, are the most expensive to address, costing organizations an average of $484,931 per incident. Additionally, the overall number of insider threat incidents has increased by 44% in the past two years.

These incidents can result in data breaches, financial losses, and reputational damage for organizations of all sizes. In fact, insider threats are the primary cause of 60% of all data breaches.

Organizations can take several measures to help reduce the risks of unintentional insider threats. A combination of these measures is necessary to provide effective protection against accidental insider threats.

  • Understand your data. Companies need to identify and categorize sensitive and valuable data resources across the organization. Without visibility into its data assets, a company cannot provide the type of tiered protection necessary to safeguard important information. Obtaining complete visibility can be complicated by the hybrid or multi-cloud environments favored by many organizations. A realtime approach to classifying data is possible with modern DLP solutions.
  • Create a data handling policy. Once the information is categorized, the categories can be used to create a data handling policy that is used to control data access. A data handling policy specifies who can access particular data elements and how they can be used. Attempts to misuse information can be restricted through automated methods and software solutions.
  • Provide security awareness training and education. Participation in data handling training and education should be a prerequisite for all employees and contractors. Everyone should be familiar with the security policies and how they impact their role in the organization. Users should understand their access limits so they can follow the policy and refrain from making costly mistakes when handling sensitive information.
  • Implement a data loss prevention solution. Implementing a data loss prevention (DLP) solution provides automated protection against the mistakes that lead to unintentional insider threats. A robust DLP tool restricts intentional or accidental attempts to misuse data, offers a powerful line of defense against unintentional insider threats and minimizes the risk of accidental data breaches.

Ho‎w data loss prevention addresses unintentional insider threats

‎A DLP solution provides an effective tool against unintentional insider threats. DLP software automatically enforces an organization’s data handling policy to ensure that information is not accidentally misused by employees or contractors. A DLP tool can also perform autonomous activities such as blocking sensitive data from being transferred via email.

The Reveal platform by Next is an advanced, cloud-native data loss prevention solution designed to help companies stop data leaks and minimize the risks of unintentional insider threats. 

Reveal provides machine learning at the endpoint with lightweight next-gen agents that identify and categorize data at the point of risk. Reveal also promotes a positive security culture with user training that emphasizes adhering to the data handling policy.

Get in touch to learn more about this modern DLP solution. Schedule a demo today to see Reveal in action and see how it protects your business from unintentional insider threats.

Fr‎equently asked questions

What is an example of a DLP tool protecting sensitive data?

Unintentional insider threats could happen in any number of different scenarios. 

For example, an employee is struggling to meet a deadline and has to work with a data set containing personal customer information. The employee attempts to transfer the file to their smartphone so they can work on it during the train commute home. This activity would violate the company’s data handling policy regarding where sensitive data can be stored or viewed.

If a DLP solution were in place, it would restrict the file transfer. The Reveal platform by Next would also inform the employee of the data handling policy violation, so they could avoid making the same mistake again in the future.

Why do unintentional insider threats pose such a great risk?

Unintentional insider risks pose a great risk to organizations because they can never be completely eradicated. As long as humans are involved in the process, there will always be the possibility of someone making a mistake. Implementing automated solutions such as data loss prevention software protects a company’s valuable data from the risk of accidental insider threats.

Who should be trained on a company’s data handling policy?

Everyone in the organization who interacts with data needs to be trained on the data handling policy. This includes all employees and contractors who use corporate data resources to perform their jobs. When employees change their position in a company, they should receive refresher training that addresses any differences in how they can now handle data.

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