Insider Threats in Cyber Security – Definition, Types, & Prevention

Written By Sambita Panigrahy  
Anuraag Singh
Approved By Anuraag Singh 
Published On September 27th, 2023
Reading Time 9 Minutes Reading

Insider threats are those that have authorized access to your network and utilize it in a way that hurts the company. It can be challenging to identify; the majority of incidents go unreported for months or years. Security teams must move swiftly and precisely to identify, analyze, and respond to these potentially harmful assaults, whether the insider is a malevolent employee or a contractor with compromised credentials.

In all critical infrastructure sectors, these threats pose a complex and dynamic danger that affects both the public and private spheres. Understanding and developing an insider threat mitigation program needs first defining these threats. 

Definition:  Insider threat is defined by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) as the risk that an insider will use their authorized access to harm the department’s mission, resources, people, facilities, information, equipment, networks, or systems. This could happen intentionally or accidentally. These threats can take many different forms, including physical harm, espionage, sabotage, theft, and cybercrime.

Who is an Insider Threat?

Insiders are categorized into two parts. 

  1. Insiders are those who have been granted access to or knowledge of an organization’s assets, including its personnel, offices, data, tools, networks, and systems.
  2. On the other hand, Malicious insiders have an advantage over other categories of malicious attackers since they are familiar with enterprise systems, processes, procedures, policies, and users. They are well aware of the vulnerabilities present in various system versions. So, internal risks must be addressed by organizations with at least the same thoroughness as external ones.

Types of Insider Threats in Cyber Security

Insider threats are mainly categorized into two parts.

  1. Malicious Insider Threats
  2. Negligent Insider Threats
  3. Other Threats

Let’s discuss them one by one.

1. Malicious Insider Threats

A premeditated incident known as a malicious insider threat. This type usually involves a disgruntled or compromised current or former employee who intends to target the firm for either monetary gain or as a form of retaliation. These occurrences are frequently connected to larger crimes or illegal conduct, like theft of data or intellectual property, or espionage. An insider with bad intentions may operate independently or in concert with cybercriminals, cyberterrorists, foreign governments, or other hostile organizations.

Typical elements of harmful insider threats include:

  • Sharing, selling, changing, or removing sensitive or confidential data
  • Misusing login information or system access
  • Changing the IT environment so that others can enter or stay there covertly

2. Negligent Insider Threats

A negligent insider threat develops as a result of manipulation, negligence, or human error. As these dangers do not require malicious actors, practically anybody could act as a careless insider if they accidentally reveal sensitive information, use weak passwords, misplace a device, neglect to safeguard an endpoint, or become a victim of social engineering.

Insider attacks committed carelessly are frequently a component of bigger cyberattacks that may also use ransomware, malware, or other attack routes.

3. Other Types of Threats

  • Threats of Collusion – This type of threat is a subclass of hostile insider threats in which one or more insiders work with an outside threat actor to undermine an organization. In these cases, cybercriminals usually enlist the help of one or more insiders to commit fraud, intellectual property theft, espionage, or a combination of the three.
  • Threats from third parties – In addition, third-party risks are frequently contractors or suppliers who aren’t official employees of a company but who are given a certain amount of access to resources like buildings, systems, networks, or people to do their duties. These dangers could be direct or covert.

How to Detect an Insider Threat? Know the Indicators

The majority of threat intelligence systems concentrate on the study of network, computer, and application data and pay little attention to authorized users’ potential abuse of their privileged access. You must monitor unusual behavior and digital activities for a secure cyber defense against an insider threat.

1. Behavioral Markers

Several warning signs of insider danger should be kept an eye out for, including:

  • A partner, vendor, or contractor who is unhappy or angry.
  • Tries to get around security.
  • Working a lot during the night.
  • Shows hostility towards coworkers.
  • Regular disregard for organizational rules.
  • Thinking about leaving or talking about prospects.

2. Digital Indicators

  • Logging onto business networks and applications at odd hours. For instance, a worker who signs into the network at 3 a.m. without being asked can be a problem.
  • Increase in network traffic volume. You’ll see odd spikes in network traffic if someone is attempting to replicate a lot of data over the network.
  • Accessing resources that they often avoid or aren’t allowed to.
  • Accessing information that is not necessary for performing their job.
  • repeatedly asking for access to resources on the system that is irrelevant to their employment.
  • Using unapproved tools, like USB drives.
  • Systematically searching the network for sensitive data.
  • Sending private information by email outside the company.

Real-Life Insider Threats Examples

Insider cyberattacks occur frequently each year, yet the vast majority of them are not reported in the media. However, in recent years, insider risks to cyber security have become more prominent. Here are a few real-life examples of insider threats.

  • Example 1 – Facebook fired a security engineer in 2018 who was accused of using the access to confidential information that came with his job to conduct online stalking of women.
  • Example 2 – In 2018, it was claimed that a Tesla employee had compromised business networks and divulged confidential information to other parties.
  • Example 3 – Around 100 million customer records were recovered from the 2019 Capital One data breach by a former Amazon engineer. They took use of their insider status to go beyond a misconfigured firewall in Capital One’s cloud server using Amazon EC2.
  • Example 4 – A former Google executive was given an 18-month prison sentence in 2020 for stealing trade secrets from Google’s self-driving car development and giving them to his new employer, Uber.

What are the Causes of Malicious Insider Incidents?

If you ask how malicious threat incidents occur, then it may be due to causes. Yes, the cause of a malicious incident is not one. There are a few common ways that threat actors follow to execute a security incident

  1. Espionage – Through cyber espionage, malicious insiders steal trade secrets, confidential information, or intellectual property of an organization. The main aim of this is to benefit the competitor or another party.
  2. Violence – Insiders use violence or the threat of violence to intimidate other employees or express discontent at an organization.
  3. Sabotage – Due to dissatisfaction with the organization, an insider may feel motivated to harm the organization’s physical property, data, or digital system, or worse compromise sensitive information.
  4. Fraud – Employees who became malicious insiders purchase personal goods at the company’s expense.
  5. Theft – An employee who is leaving the organization may leak confidential information to their future employer.

Who Could Be Threatened by Insiders?

An insider threat can, by definition, affect any business that has an “insider.” It can be more challenging to defend the enterprise from an insider threat than other attack types because the majority of cybersecurity tools and solutions are typically focused on threats originating from outside the organization and inside actors may be familiar with the company’s security procedures and system vulnerabilities.

Certain sectors are more vulnerable to insider threats than others, including

  • Companies that provide financial services, like banks, credit unions, companies that offer credit cards, and lenders
  • Insurance businesses
  • Providers of telecommunications
  • Suppliers of energy and utilities
  • Industrial businesses
  • Pharmaceutical businesses
  • Medical facilities and hospitals
  • Governmental organizations and senior officials

It is crucial to remember that in addition to the actual cost of a data breach caused by an insider threat, a company may also be subject to fines and other penalties from authorities or other watchdog organizations if it fails to take adequate precautions to protect customer, employee, or patient data.

How to Protect & Prevent an Insider Threat?

Organizations must take extra precautions to guard against this risk because conventional security measures frequently do not monitor insider activity.

Safety against Careless Insider Threats

Protecting against careless insider assaults will be akin to defending against malware, ransomware, or other cyber threats at the corporate level. To help keep your operations secure, adhere to the following recommended practices:

1. Educate all workers on best practices for cybersecurity.

Your security is primarily provided by your employees. On all of their devices, make sure they practice excellent hygiene, including utilizing strong password protection, connecting only to secure Wi-Fi, and keeping an eye out for phishing. To guarantee that employees are taking the appropriate precautions to safeguard themselves and the business from insider threats and other cyber dangers, provide thorough and frequent security awareness training sessions.

2. Ensure that all software, including the operating system, is patched and current.

Hackers are always seeking vulnerabilities and backdoors to take advantage of. You can reduce your exposure to known vulnerabilities by regularly updating your systems.

3. Always keep an eye out for signs of attack and harmful activities in the surroundings (IOAs).

Activate an endpoint detection and response (EDR) system to keep an eye on all endpoints and record raw events for automatic detection of malicious activity not picked up by preventative techniques.

4. Complement the security plan with threat intelligence.

To enhance network security, monitor systems in real-time, stay current on threat intelligence, and immediately identify an attack, understand how to best respond, and stop it from spreading.


Q- How to stop insider threats?

Constant monitoring of user activity, getting real-time insight into network activity, and taking action on an incident without any delay would contribute to stopping insider threats to a great extent.

Q- What is the difference between an Outsider and an Insider?

Outsiders who have no relationship or basic access to data are not considered insider threats. However, insiders can intentionally or unintentionally help external threats gain access to data.

Q- What are the signs of insider risks?

Some of the primary signs of insider risk include sudden changes in user activities, a connected sequence of risky activities, departing employee(s) accessing the resources not needed for their job, etc.

Q- What is the importance of insider risk management?

Insider risk management involves the right set of policies and solutions in place that would help organizations stay ahead of potential threats. Also, it would save an organization from a great deal of damage that would have been caused due to insider threats.