Constella Intelligence

How to Identify & Monitor Insider Threat Indicators [A Guide]

digital exhaust

Most security protocols look outward when looking for cybersecurity threats. But what about threats from inside your organization?

Our recent study found that 42% of exposed credentials came from an insider threat—former employees whose credentials were still active, employee error, or a malicious insider. That’s significant, but what can you do to prevent such attacks? To understand that, we must first consider what insider threat indicators exist and what you can do to prevent these attacks.

What Is an Insider Threat?

An insider threat is a current or former employee who has (or had) access to your organization’s network and has malicious intentions to harm your organization. They may be able to access potentially sensitive information through a variety of means, including:

  • A company computer attached to your organization’s network
  • Badges or other types of access devices
  • Developer access to a product or service
  • General access to protected information

While any employee could be an insider threat, most threats are from those with higher privilege access to data. Those employees could include managers, department heads, or even developers who have access to customer data gathered by your company.

Insider Threats: Not Always Intentional

It’s also worth noting that insider threats may become threats by accident—it’s not always a case of malicious intent. You may have an employee who makes a mistake that allows a significant data breach. That’s why you should properly train anyone with stewardship over your company’s data.

How Can You Identify Insider Threats?

Insider threats are hard to detect for four primary reasons:

  • Most insiders have legitimate access to your data, making it challenging to identify breaches.
  • Perpetrators likely want to remain undetected and wreak havoc on your network. They’ll go out of their way to cover their tracks.
  • Insiders understand your security vulnerabilities and leverage them to gain access to data if necessary.
  • Many insiders with malicious intent understand your security measures and the workarounds they can exploit to avoid those measures.

But that does not mean detection is impossible—you just have to be more vigilant. We’ll go over some more comprehensive strategies later in the article, but here are some general insider threat indicators that may suggest when an individual is a threat. A threat may come from an employee who:

  • Is disgruntled and outspoken about their dissatisfaction.
  • Regularly works outside of normal office hours.
  • Routinely violates organizational policies.
  • Displays resentment toward other coworkers.
  • Signs into network accounts at odd hours.
  • Repeatedly requests access to resources they don’t need.

Who Is at Risk of Insider Threats?

Insider threats are prevalent in virtually every industry—most organizations will likely have data that would jeopardize the entire organization if compromised. That said, five sectors are targeted more often (according to Verizon’s Insider Threat Report):

  • Healthcare and social assistance
  • Public administration
  • Professional, scientific, and technical services
  • Financial and insurance
  • Manufacturing

Why are these industries more at risk than others? Some theorize that these industries generate more monetizable data, like banking information, customer lists, or billing information. So, if your industry collects such data, even if it isn’t one of these five, you’re still a likely target of an insider threat.

4 Types of Insider Threats

There are four types of intentional insider threats:

  1. Sabotage: Destroying or locking access to essential data. Such an act may attempt to stunt a company’s growth or limit its ability to perform.
  2. Fraud: Altering data to deceive the organization or its clients. Data fraud may lead to fines from a governing body or eroded trust within the organization.
  3. Theft: Stealing data for personal gain. Insiders may sell this information to another party or use it for their own devices.
  4. Espionage: Stealing information for the benefit of another business or individual. Some companies may use an insider to steal trade secrets.

Unintentional threats can surprisingly be more damaging than intentional threats. Unintentional insider threats are incredibly prevalent. Negligent insiders often don’t understand the consequences of their actions.

In the next section, we’ll go into more detail about intentional and unintentional threats.

8 Examples of Insider Threats

What are some insider threat indicators of which you should be aware? While we know what the attacks are trying to target, it can still be challenging to identify the attacks. To help out, here are eight examples of insider threats.

Intentional Threats

These insider threats are intentionally trying to do damage to your business.

1. Malicious Insiders

These are employees with a grievance or misgiving about the company they work for, leading them to act against the company’s security. An attack may involve leaking information to the public (like when Edward Snowden leaked highly classified information about the NSA’s intelligence-gathering practices). Other malicious insiders may sell information for profit.

2. Disgruntled Former Employees

Departing employees may resent your organization, particularly those who were fired or laid off. As a last-ditch effort, they may exfiltrate data before leaving the company (as a former employee did when they sabotaged shipping records as they left the company). In these instances, executives are frequently the focus of the employee’s discontentment.

3. Collaborators/Inside Agents

These employees work for a third party to extract an organization’s information or to conduct a security attack.

A third party may coerce employees into assisting them through bribery or blackmail. For example, the following image is of an email from a third-party actor trying to coerce an employee to provide sensitive information about a company.

While many employees will not be tempted by this email, some might be. That’s why it’s essential to have proactive email spam detectors to keep these emails from reaching your employees’ inboxes.

4. Secret Stealers

Employees may want to leverage their chances when switching to a new company within the same industry. Stolen information may include trade secrets and information about specific processes at your company to gain favor at their new company.

5. Third-Party Partners

Some insider threats are not on your payroll. They may be attached to your business through a partnership. For example, companies often give vendors, and suppliers access to their clients’ networks, providing a malicious party the means to access sensitive information.

Unintentional Threats

Then there are the people who mean no harm but continue to be a liability.

6. Security Avoiders

You likely have security protocols to protect your data. Sometimes, employees view these protocols as a hindrance and avoid the security standard altogether. Protocol avoidance may open doors for attackers, making these security avoiders unintended assets to cybercriminals.

7. Absent-Minded Communicators

Insider threats can be as innocent as sending an email to the wrong person. Recently, one company’s employee information was compromised because someone sent an email to the wrong team.

8. The Scammed

Phishing and vishing scams, among other malicious tactics, are commonly used to pull information from unsuspecting employees. Unfortunately, these tactics are quite prevalent—some estimate that over 3.4 billion phishing emails are sent worldwide every day. If one of your employees responds to a scam email, it could spell trouble for your network.

How Do You Protect Against Insider Threats?

Understanding how many potential insider threat indicators exist is crucial. Now that you’re aware of insider threat indicators, what can you do to protect your business against threats? Aside from conducting an exposure risk assessment to determine how much of your information is already in the open, the following are five strategies you can use to detect and identify insider threats.

1. Monitor User Activity

Invest in monitoring tools that watch over employees’ user actions and compare those actions to your established security protocols. With a tool like this in your security arsenal, you can quickly identify suspicious activity within your network, like odd working hours or flagrant security violations.

If you observe any suspicious user activity, investigate it immediately—don’t wait until your regular security checkup.

2. Listen to Your Employees

Interview your employees if you believe an insider threat may cause your network security vulnerabilities. Communication will help you gain insight into the general morale of your workforce, possibly revealing which employees are disgruntled. Alternatively, other employees may have insight into the suspicious behavior of coworkers, which you can use as a foundation for your investigation.

3. Apply User Access Management

Some employees have access to data with which they have no business. Reassess your data permissions yearly to ensure no employee has unintended access to data that could damage your business.

If certain employees require access to sensitive data, ensure they’ve established two-factor authentication so data can remain in the right hands.

4. Meet Compliance Requirements

If your industry has data security compliance requirements, ensure your system is up to date with the latest protocols. Otherwise, a data breach may turn into a more significant regulatory problem.

5. Mitigate Opportunities

Rather than being reactive in your insider threat mitigation, you should engage in proactive strategies that prevent insider threats from compromising your network. Mitigation may include services like Constella Intelligence’s Surface Web Monitoring. This monitoring helps you identify potential threats and amplifies risk prevention.

Insider Threat Protection You Can Trust

When fighting insider threats, the best action is to partner with a trusted cybersecurity service, like Constella Intelligence. Our network has more data sources than any other organization, including social activity, surface web monitoring, and dark web monitoring. With our multi-level protection, you can rest assured that we scour every corner of the internet for your protection.

Ready to experience this level of protection for yourself? Check out our threat intelligence service today.


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Alberto Casares

VP of Threat Research


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