Insider Threats in Cyber Security

The Hidden Dangers: Unveiling Insider Threats in Cyber Security

February 2, 2024



When delving into the realm of cyber security, our minds often conjure images of external hackers relentlessly attempting to breach the fortified walls of organisations, seeking access to private and sensitive data. However, a looming and increasingly menacing concern is taking root within businesses – the threat from insiders. The surge in insider threats paints a stark picture, indicating a rising tide of incidents, catching an overwhelming number of businesses off guard. While deploying top-notch IT security software is undoubtedly a crucial step, formidable challenges persist, particularly when the adversary lurks within the confines of your organisational landscape. 

Insider Threat Statistics You Need to Know 

The landscape of cyber threats is evolving, and insiders are emerging as a significant peril to organisational cyber security. Recent statistics reveal a concerning trend that demands attention and strategic preparedness.  Cyber Security Insider Threats Frequency

  • Escalating Frequency of Attacks: According to the Gurucul 2023 Insider Threat Report, a staggering 74% of organisations have witnessed a surge in the frequency of insider attacks. This alarming rise highlights the pressing need for businesses to reassess their security measures and adopt proactive strategies. 
  • Widespread Impact on Businesses: Insider threats cast their shadow over a significant portion of businesses, affecting 35% annually. This pervasive influence emphasises the fact that no organisation is immune to the potential risk. 
  • The financial ramifications of insider risks are substantial, with the average annual cost soaring to a staggering $16.2 million USD. This hefty cost encompasses several factors, including incident response, reputation management, and potential legal consequences, underscoring the gravity of insider threats.

What are Insider Threats?  

An insider can be any individual who has intimate knowledge of the business and how it works. Insider threats emerge as significant security risks originating from within an organisation, driven by either negligence or deliberate actions of individuals. These threats, often possessing access to critical business information, constitute a formidable cyber threat that demands robust security measures. 

Potential threat actors extend beyond employees and may include: 

  • Board members 
  • Executive leadership 
  • Stakeholders 
  • Investors 
  • Former staff 
  • Third-party vendors 

Cyber Security Insider Threats

Types of Insider Threats 

Insider threats, those originating within an organisation, manifest in two distinct forms: 

Malicious Insider Threats: The Hidden Vendettas 

A malicious insider threat is a premeditated act, often orchestrated by a disgruntled or compromised current or former employee. Motivated by personal financial gain or a desire for vengeance, these events are frequently tied to more extensive criminal or illicit activities, encompassing fraud, espionage, or the theft of data or intellectual property. Operating either independently or in collaboration with external entities such as cybercriminals, terrorist groups, foreign government agencies, or hostile entities, malicious insiders commonly engage in: 

  • Sharing, selling, modifying, or deleting confidential data or sensitive information. 
  • Misusing system access or login credentials. 
  • Altering the IT environment to facilitate undetected entry or residence by unauthorised entities. 

Negligent Insider Threats: Unravelling the Web of Unintentional Risks 

Negligent insider threats emerge from human error, carelessness, or manipulation, devoid of malicious intent. Anyone within the organisation can inadvertently become a negligent insider by unintentionally sharing sensitive data, employing weak passwords, losing a device, neglecting to secure an endpoint, or succumbing to a social engineering attack. Typically entwined with broader cyberattacks involving malware, ransomware, or other vectors, negligent insider incidents underscore the importance of addressing unintentional vulnerabilities in organisational cyber security. 

Understanding and differentiating between these two facets of insider threats is crucial for organisations striving to fortify their defences against both intentional and inadvertent internal risks. 

Why are insider threats difficult to detect? 

Detecting insider threats, be they the result of malicious intent or negligence, has become an intricate challenge in the cyber security landscape. According to the Ponemon Institute, the average duration to contain an insider threat incident is a staggering 86 days.

Two primary reasons are contributing to the difficulty in detecting insider attacks: 

  1. Security Tool Focus: Most existing security tools and solutions primarily concentrate on recognising and preventing external threats, often overlooking the nuances of suspicious behaviour exhibited by legitimate users within the organisation. 
  1. Insider Familiarity: Internal actors possess an intimate understanding of the organisation’s network settings, security policies, and procedures. This familiarity grants them insights into vulnerabilities, gaps, or other weaknesses that can be exploited without triggering traditional security measures. 

With insider threats posing significant financial and reputational risks, organisations are urged to establish robust insider threat programs specifically tailored to address this critical cyber security concern. 

Motives of Internal Attackers 

Insider Threats Cyber Security

Internal attackers, whether intentional or inadvertent, are driven by diverse motives, each carrying distinct risks for an organisation. Delving into the motivations behind insider threats provides valuable insights into the potential avenues of vulnerability. According to a comprehensive study by Cyber Security Insiders, the motivations can be categorised as follows: 

Monetary Gain

Malicious insiders may target monetary gains by engaging in various activities aimed at financial exploitation. This can include direct theft of funds, embezzlement, or participation in illicit financial schemes. The impact of such actions extends beyond immediate financial losses, affecting the organisation’s operational budgets, financial stability, and overall economic health. The pursuit of monetary gain as a motive for internal attacks poses a significant threat to the organisation’s financial integrity. 

Reputational Damage

Some insiders may harbour motives to inflict reputational damage on the organisation. By undertaking actions that lead to negative publicity, loss of trust, and damage to the brand image, these individuals seek to tarnish the organisation’s standing in the eyes of customers, partners, and the public. The consequences of reputational damage can be long-lasting, impacting the organisation’s relationships and market position. Addressing this motive requires a proactive approach to safeguarding the organisation’s reputation from insider threats. 

Intellectual Property (IP) Theft

Motivated by espionage, insiders may target intellectual property, proprietary information, or trade secrets to gain a competitive advantage or sell the stolen assets to external entities. The impact of IP theft extends beyond immediate losses, including the erosion of the organisation’s competitive edge, potential legal consequences, and compromised innovation. Guarding against IP theft involves robust measures to protect sensitive information and proprietary assets. 


Insider threats with fraudulent motives may engage in a variety of activities, including manipulating financial records, committing identity theft, or orchestrating schemes for personal gain. The impact of fraudulent actions ranges from financial fraud and regulatory compliance violations to legal repercussions for the organisation. Detecting and preventing fraud as an insider threat motive requires vigilant monitoring, strong internal controls, and proactive measures to safeguard against deceptive practices within the organisation. 

Understanding the motivations behind internal attacks is a pivotal step in developing comprehensive strategies 

Real-Life Examples of Insider Threats 

Insider threats, irrespective of the industry or company size, manifest as real dangers, as demonstrated by the following examples: 

Tesla’s PII Data Leak by Former Employees

In 2023, Tesla fell victim to a data breach orchestrated by two former employees. The breach exposed sensitive personal data, including names, addresses, phone numbers, employment records, and social security numbers of over 75,000 current and former employees. Customer bank details, production secrets, and complaints about Tesla’s Full Self-Driving features were also disclosed. Despite legal actions against the culprits, the incident left an indelible mark on Tesla’s security reputation. 

Yahoo’s Departing Employee Stealing Trade Secrets

In May 2022, a Yahoo research scientist, Qian Sang, allegedly stole proprietary information about Yahoo’s AdLearn product just minutes after receiving a job offer from a competitor. Sang downloaded around 570,000 pages of Yahoo’s intellectual property to his personal devices, anticipating personal gain in his new role. Yahoo subsequently discovered the theft, prompting legal action against Sang for charges, including the theft of IP data, causing potential harm to the company’s exclusive control over trade secrets. 

Microsoft Employee’s Negligent Exposure of Login Credentials

In August 2022, several Microsoft employees unintentionally exposed login credentials to the company’s GitHub infrastructure. This incident could have granted unauthorised access to Azure servers and other internal Microsoft systems. The potential repercussions included compromising Microsoft source code and exposing EU customer information, leading to a GDPR fine of up to €20 million. Cyber security firm spiderSilk detected the leaked credentials, enabling Microsoft to take corrective measures and prevent unauthorised access to sensitive data. 

These real-life examples underscore the diverse nature of insider threats, ranging from deliberate data leaks to unintentional exposure of critical credentials, emphasising the need for robust insider threat detection and prevention strategies. 

Top Insider Threat Indicators 

In the realm of cyber security, recognising and understanding insider threat indicators is paramount for preventing potential harm. Below are the top five indicators that organisations should remain vigilant about, each requiring unique detection strategies. 

  1. Unusual Login Behaviour

  • Indicator: Login attempts from unusual locations, devices, odd hours, or scenarios indicating impossible travel. 
  • Detection: Monitoring authentication logs is essential to identify deviations from baseline patterns. Any unexpected behaviour should be promptly investigated to ensure the integrity of user access. 
  1. Unauthorised Use of Applications

  • Indicator: Attempts to access applications beyond assigned roles or repeated unauthorised access. 
  • Detection: Employing a least privileged access methodology is crucial. Regular monitoring for any deviations from defined access roles ensures timely detection and prevention of unauthorised application usage. 
  1. Privilege Escalation

  • Indicator: Increase in the number of users with escalated access privileges. 
  • Detection: Regularly auditing and reviewing user permissions is key to identifying any unauthorised privilege escalations. This proactive approach helps maintain a secure access environment. 
  1. Excessive Downloads

  • Indicator: Sudden spikes in data downloads beyond established baselines. 
  • Detection: Establishing data downloading patterns for each department provides a baseline for normal behaviour. Any unexplained deviations should be thoroughly investigated to prevent potential data breaches. 
  1. Anomalous Employee Behaviour

  • Indicator: Unexplained changes in behaviour, poor performance, disagreements, unexpected financial changes, or resignations. 
  • Detection: Fostering an effective communication culture within the organisation is essential. Encouraging employees to promptly report unusual behaviour ensures a collaborative effort in identifying potential insider threats. 

Understanding and actively monitoring these indicators not only bolsters an organisation’s security posture but also contributes to the development of a proactive and effective insider threat detection and prevention strategy. Vigilance in these areas is instrumental in maintaining the integrity and resilience of cybersecurity defences against insider threats. 

Insider Threat Detection Strategies 

Effectively countering insider threats necessitates a multifaceted approach that synergises human insights with innovative technological solutions. This comprehensive strategy encompasses both the human and technology elements for robust insider threat detection: 

The Human Element

Consider Point of View: Understanding the unique perspectives and behaviours of individuals is paramount. By delving into the intricacies of how employees perceive and interact with their roles, organisations can better identify potential insider threats. 

Observe Body Language: Non-verbal cues can often disclose true intentions. A keen focus on employees’ body language provides an additional layer of insights, helping discern any incongruities that might indicate potential insider threats. 

The Technology Element 

User and Entity Behaviour Analytics (UEBA): Leveraging advanced UEBA systems facilitates real-time monitoring of user behaviour patterns. By flagging anomalies indicative of potential insider threats, organisations can proactively identify and respond to suspicious activities. 

Authentication Processes: Implementing robust authentication processes is crucial for bolstering identity verification. Multi-factor authentication and biometric scanning add layers of security, making it more challenging for unauthorised access to go undetected. 

By seamlessly integrating the human element’s nuanced understanding with state-of-the-art technological solutions, organisations can establish a comprehensive approach to insider threat detection. This approach not only fortifies defences against potential threats but also ensures a dynamic and adaptive strategy that evolves with the ever-changing landscape of insider risks. 

Insider Threat Prevention Strategies 

To fortify organisations against the looming threat of insider breaches, implementing proactive policies and persistent efforts is paramount. The following strategies form a comprehensive framework for preventing insider threats:

Employee Screenings

Thorough screening procedures constitute the first line of defence. By conducting in-depth background checks, including criminal and financial histories, organisations can scrutinise potential vulnerabilities before granting access to sensitive data. This proactive measure significantly reduces the risk of insider threats emerging from compromised employee backgrounds. Additionally, continuous vetting procedures, especially for roles demanding high-security clearances, ensure ongoing suitability and minimise the likelihood of insider threats evolving.

Monitoring and Reviewing Employee Actions

Implementing stringent audit policies and fostering a communication culture is essential in minimising insider threat risks. Policies requiring comprehensive reviews and signoffs for all employee actions help detect and rectify mistakes or negligence that could potentially lead to insider threats. Meanwhile, a culture of open communication enhances awareness of major projects and potential insider threats, facilitating early intervention.

Role-Based Access Control (RBAC)

A pivotal strategy involves adopting Role-Based Access Control (RBAC) policies to restrict employee access based on specific job responsibilities. This aligns with the zero-trust model, assuming all employees have the potential to pose insider threats. Proactively limiting access according to job roles mitigates associated risks, forming a critical defence against unauthorised activities.

Regular Security Policy Audits

Conducting periodic reviews and audits of security policies is crucial for staying ahead of evolving insider threat scenarios. Regular evaluations ensure that policies, including employee screening procedures, incident response plans, and vulnerability tests, remain current and effective. Swift response plans to counter insider threats are indispensable, ensuring immediate mitigation and preventing unauthorised access or sabotage.

Data Encryption

Implementing robust data encryption measures acts as a formidable barrier against insider threats attempting to exploit unprotected data. Encryption strategies for critical assets thwart unauthorised viewing or transmission of sensitive information. Secure key management practices further enhance the integrity of encrypted data, contributing to a proactive defence against insider threats seeking to compromise organisational data. 


In conclusion, the pervasive and evolving nature of insider threats underscores the critical importance of adopting a proactive and comprehensive approach to cyber security. Organisations must not only understand the motives and risk characteristics driving insider threats but also implement effective detection and prevention strategies. 

Navigating the complex realm of cyber security and effectively countering insider threats demands specialised expertise. Our dedicated team is equipped to assess your organisation’s vulnerabilities, develop tailored prevention strategies, and implement innovative technologies to bolster your defence against insider threats. Don’t wait until it’s too late; take proactive steps to secure your sensitive data and maintain the integrity of your operations. Contact us today to schedule a consultation and fortify your cyber defences against insider threats. Your security is our priority. 


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