What Are Insider Threats?
Insider threats refer to human security risks that originate within an organization. They are security risks posed by individuals with far-reaching access privileges to an organization’s systems, networks, or data to do their jobs. These individuals include current or former employees, contractors, business partners, trusted insiders, or third-party vendors. Insider threats can manifest in different forms, from unintentional errors and negligence to malicious intent.
Unlike external threat actors, insiders are familiar with an organization’s internal workings, making it easier to bypass security measures and go undetected for extended periods. They can wreak havoc on an organization’s security infrastructure, compromise confidential information, and cause severe financial and reputational damage.
Why Insider Threats Are So Dangerous
A recent Verizon wireless report revealed that the human element contributed to 82 percent of all breaches in 2022. Insider threats were suddenly thrust into the limelight and quickly became a serious concern.
Insider threats are dangerous due to their inherent advantages:
- Insiders know intimately about an organization’s security infrastructure, making exploiting vulnerabilities or finding workarounds easier.
- Insiders often have authorized access to sensitive data, allowing them to perform actions that may go unnoticed or raise fewer red flags.
- Uninformed employees could inadvertently expose data and credentials to threat actors.
- Insiders may be able to abuse their privileges without triggering alerts, which can result in significant damage before detection.
Types of Insider Threats
Examples of Insider Threats
In 2013, former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden leaked classified documents, thus revealing extensive surveillance programs. Snowden had privileged access to sensitive information and used his insider status to expose what he believed to be privacy violations. The incident exposed the vulnerabilities of insider access and led to significant changes in government surveillance practices.
Chelsea Manning, a former U.S. Army intelligence analyst, leaked classified diplomatic cables and military documents to WikiLeaks in 2010. Manning’s actions resulted in one of history’s most significant leaks of classified information. She exploited her authorized access to expose what she saw as evidence of wrongdoing and human rights abuses.
Samsung ChatGPT Leak
In April 2023, Samsung engineers inadvertently leaked sensitive company data when they uploaded code and other information into ChatGPT. Samsung has since temporarily restricted generative AI tools on company-owned computers, tablets, mobile phones, and non-company-owned devices running on internal networks.
Tesla’s Intellectual Property Theft
In 2018, a former employee named Guangzhi Cao was accused of stealing trade secrets related to Tesla’s Autopilot technology. Cao, who had accepted a job with a Chinese autonomous vehicle startup, allegedly downloaded sensitive files and transferred them to his personal storage devices. The incident highlighted the risks of intellectual property theft through insider actions.
Healthcare Data Breaches
In 2015, a former employee of a New York hospital accessed patient records without authorization. This breach compromised the personal information of thousands of patients and underscored the importance of monitoring insider activities.
These examples demonstrate the diverse nature of insider threats and how easy it is for an insider to intentionally or unintentionally leak or expose classified or confidential information and allow unauthorized access to sensitive data. They emphasize the need for organizations to implement robust security measures, such as a Zero Trust model and proactive monitoring to detect and prevent insider threats.
Key Motivators of Insider Threats
Motivators for insider threats can vary widely depending on the individual and the circumstances involved. Some common motivators for insider threats include:
Financial Gain: Money is a significant motivator for insider threats. Employees may be enticed by monetary bribes from external parties to steal or sell sensitive information. Economic pressures, greed, or the desire for a particular lifestyle can drive individuals to exploit their access privileges for personal or financial gain.
Revenge or Retaliation: Disgruntled employees who feel wronged or mistreated by their current or former employer may seek revenge by exposing highly sensitive company data. Their goal is to intentionally disrupt operations, leak confidential information, damage a company’s reputation, or sabotage systems as a form of retaliation.
Ideology or Beliefs: Insiders motivated by ideology, political beliefs, or personal convictions may view their actions as a means to further their cause or expose what they perceive as unjust, corrupt, or illegal. Their actions may be driven by a sense of moral righteousness or a desire to create public awareness.
Espionage or Competitor Advantage: In some cases, insiders may attempt to steal proprietary information, trade secrets, or intellectual property to benefit a competitor or foreign entity.
Negligence or Lack of Awareness: Not all insider threats are nefarious. Unintentional insider threats can occur due to negligence, lack of cybersecurity awareness, or inadequate training. Employees may unknowingly fall victim to phishing attacks, inadvertently disclose sensitive information, or unintentionally violate security protocols.
Intentional vs. Unintentional Insider Threats
Intentional insider threats are conducted by individuals with malicious intent to harm an organization. Their actions are driven by personal or financial gain, ideology, revenge, or coercion.
On the other hand, unintentional insider threats involve individuals who inadvertently compromise security by clicking on malicious links, falling prey to social engineering attacks, mishandling data, or violating security policies due to a lack of awareness or training.