The Enemy Within: An Overview of Insider Threats

Insider Threats

A recent study conducted by Verizon has revealed that 30% of data breaches are due to insider threats, which are primarily caused by employee negligence or accidental actions. These incidents can lead to the loss of sensitive data, intellectual property, and other important assets, which can have a detrimental impact on an organization’s reputation and financial performance.

Furthermore, insider threats may also result in legal and regulatory penalties and loss of customer confidence. To reduce the risk of insider threats and prevent such incidents from happening, organizations should adopt strong security measures and provide ongoing training to their employees.

Types of Insider Threats 

Insider threats can take many different forms, and organizations need to be aware of the various types of threats in order to adequately protect themselves. The most common types of insider threats include: 

Accidental insiders: These are insiders who inadvertently cause security incidents due to carelessness or lack of awareness. They may unintentionally introduce malware into the network, click on phishing links, or use weak passwords. Accidental insiders can be especially dangerous because they may not be aware of the security risks they pose to the organization.

Malicious insiders: These are insiders who intentionally seek to cause harm to an organization. They may be motivated by financial gain, revenge, or a desire to prove a point. Malicious insiders may steal confidential information, intellectual property, or customer data. They may also sabotage systems or data, or engage in fraudulent activities. 

Compromised insiders: These are insiders whose accounts or systems have been compromised by external attackers. Attackers may use a variety of tactics to compromise insiders, including phishing, malware, or social engineering. Once an insider’s account or system has been compromised, attackers can use it to gain further access to the organization’s systems or data. 

Other types of insider threats: There are other types of insider threats that organizations should be aware of, including employees who inadvertently violate policies or procedures, or who engage in risky behavior outside of work that could compromise their security at work. Vendors or contractors who have access to the organization’s systems or data can also pose insider threats.

Three phases of insider threat

The three phases of insider threat are reconnaissance, cultivation, and exploitation. Each phase represents a different stage in the attacker’s journey, from the initial planning stages to the actual execution of the attack. Understanding these phases can help organizations to detect and prevent insider threats before they can cause damage. 

Reconnaissance Phase: The reconnaissance phase is the initial stage in an insider threat attack. During this phase, the attacker gathers information about the target organization, its systems, and its employees. This can include collecting publicly available information, such as employee names and job titles, as well as more sensitive data, such as network architecture and security protocols. The attacker may also attempt to identify potential vulnerabilities in the organization’s security defenses. 

Cultivation Phase: During the cultivation phase, the attacker begins to establish relationships with employees within the organization. This can involve social engineering tactics, such as phishing emails or phone calls, to gain the trust of employees and gather more information about the organization. The attacker may also seek to exploit existing relationships, such as personal or professional connections, to gain access to sensitive information or systems. 

Exploitation Phase: The exploitation phase is the final stage in an insider threat attack. During this phase, the attacker uses the information and relationships gathered in the reconnaissance and cultivation phases to carry out the attack. This can include stealing sensitive data, sabotaging systems, or disrupting operations. The attacker may also attempt to cover their tracks and evade detection. 

What is the most common insider threat?

Here are some common examples of insider threats: Intellectual property theft: Insiders may steal confidential or proprietary information, such as trade secrets, customer lists, or product designs, in order to sell it to competitors or use it to start their own business. 

  • Fraud: Insiders may use their access to financial systems or data to commit fraud, such as embezzlement or falsifying expense reports. 
  • Sabotage: Insiders may intentionally damage or sabotage systems, applications, or data, either for personal gain or as a form of revenge against the organization. 
  • Data manipulation: Insiders may alter or delete data, such as financial records or customer information, in order to cover up mistakes or malicious activities. 
  • Unauthorized access: Insiders may use their privileged access to systems or data to access information that they are not authorized to view or to perform activities that are outside of their job responsibilities. 
  • Social engineering: Insiders may use social engineering tactics, such as phishing or pretexting, to trick other employees into divulging sensitive information or performing actions that compromise security. 

Motivations of Insider Threats 

Insider threats can be motivated by a variety of factors, ranging from financial gain to personal grievances. Understanding these motivations is key to developing effective insider threat prevention strategies. The most common motivations for insider threats include: 

  • Financial gain: Insiders may be motivated by the potential financial rewards of stealing confidential information or intellectual property. For example, an employee may steal customer data and sell it to a competitor or use it to commit identity theft. 
  • Revenge: Insiders may be motivated by a desire to get revenge against the organization or their colleagues. This may be the result of a perceived injustice, such as being passed over for a promotion or being terminated from their job.
  • Ideological motivations: Insiders may be motivated by ideological beliefs or political affiliations. For example, an employee may steal sensitive data to support a political cause or to expose what they perceive as wrongdoing by the organization. 
  • Personal gain: Insiders may be motivated by personal gain that is not necessarily financial. For example, an employee may steal trade secrets in order to start their own business or to gain a competitive advantage in the job market. 
  • Other motivations: Insiders may also be motivated by a variety of other factors, such as mental health issues, addiction, or simply a desire to feel important or powerful.

What should we do against Insider Threats?


Needless to say that the very first action we have to take is prevention. To prevent insider threats, organizations should implement a range of technical, policy, and cultural measures. Some effective prevention strategies include: 

  • Implementing access controls: Organizations should implement strict access controls that limit employees’ access to only the systems and data that they need to perform their job responsibilities. 
  • Employee training: Organizations should provide regular training and awareness programs that educate employees on the risks of insider threats and how to recognize and prevent them. 
  • Monitoring employee behavior: Organizations should monitor employee behavior and activities, such as network activity and data access logs, in order to detect potential insider threats. 
  • Implementing data loss prevention (DLP) technologies: Organizations should implement DLP technologies that monitor and prevent the unauthorized transfer of sensitive data outside of the organization. 
  • Creating a culture of security: Organizations should promote a culture of security that emphasizes the importance of security and encourages employees to report any suspicious activity or security incidents. 

Detections and Responds

While prevention is important, it’s also crucial to be able to detect and respond to insider threats when they do occur. Here are some steps organizations can take to detect and respond to insider threats: 

  • Monitoring and analysis: Organizations should monitor employee behavior and activities, such as network activity and data access logs, in order to detect potential insider threats. Advanced analytics and machine learning algorithms can help to identify anomalous behavior that may indicate an insider threat. 
  • Incident response plan: Organizations should have an incident response plan in place that outlines the steps to take in the event of an insider threat incident. This plan should include roles and responsibilities, communication protocols, and escalation procedures. 
  • Investigation: When an insider threat is detected, organizations should conduct a thorough investigation to determine the extent of the damage and identify the root cause of the incident. This may involve forensic analysis of digital evidence, interviews with employees, and collaboration with law enforcement. 
  • Remediation and recovery: Organizations should take immediate steps to remediate any damage caused by the insider threat incident, such as restoring data from backups, patching vulnerabilities, and revoking access to compromised systems. They should also put measures in place to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future. 
  • Employee support: Insider threat incidents can be stressful and traumatic for employees, particularly those who may have been inadvertently involved in the incident. Organizations should provide support and resources to employees who may be affected, such as counseling or training on security best practices. 

By having a comprehensive detection and response plan in place, organizations can minimize the impact of insider threat incidents and recover more quickly from any damage that may occur. Please bear in mind that insider threat incidents can be complex and difficult to detect, and organizations should consider engaging the services of third-party security experts who specialize in insider threat detection and response.


Insider threats are a serious security risk that organizations face in today’s interconnected world. From intellectual property theft to fraud, sabotage, data manipulation, and unauthorized access, insider threats can take many forms and cause significant harm to an organization. To prevent insider threats, organizations must implement a range of technical, policy, and cultural measures that involve ongoing monitoring, continuous improvement, and a culture of security that emphasizes the importance of protecting systems and data from both external and internal threats.