Mitigating Insider Threats

With all the news about security breaches, we often hear about external cyber attacks, but internal attacks are widely unreported. Studies show that between 45% to 60% of all attacks were carried out by insiders. In addition, it is harder to detect and prevent insider attacks because access and activities are coming from trusted systems.

Why is this so common and why is this so hard to mitigate? The following reasons have been cited to explain why there are more incidents of internal security breaches:

1. Companies don’t employ data protection, don’t apply patches on time, or don’t enforce any security policies/standards (such as using complex passwords). Some companies wrongly assume that installing a firewall can protect them from inside intruders.

2. Data is outside of the control of IT security such as when the data is in the cloud.

3. The greatest reason for security breach is also the weakest link in the security chain – the people. There are two types of people in this weak security chain:

a. People who are vulnerable such as careless users who use USB, send sensitive data using public email services, or sacrifice security in favor of convenience. Most of the time, users are not aware that their account has already been compromised via malware, phishing attacks, or stolen credentials gleaned from social networks.

b. People who have their own agenda or what we call malicious users. These individuals want to steal and sell competitive data or intellectual properties to gain money, or they probably have personal vendetta against the organization.

There are however proven measures to lessen the gravity of insider threats:

1. Monitor the users, especially those who hold the potential for greatest damage – top executives, contractors, vendors, at-risk employees, and IT administrators.

2. Learn the way they access the data, create a baseline and detect any anomalous behavior.

3. When a divergent behavior is detected such as unauthorized download or server log-ins, perform an action such as block or quarantine user.

It should be noted that when an individual is caught compromising security, more often than not, damage has already been done. The challenge is to be proactive in order for the breach to not happen in the first place.

An article in Harvard Business Review has argued that psychology is the key to detecting internal cyber threats.

In essence, companies should focus on understanding and anticipating human behavior such as analyzing employee language (in their email, chat, and text) continuously and in real time. The author contends that “certain negative emotions, stressors, and conflicts have long been associated with incidents of workplace aggression, employee turnover, absenteeism, accidents, fraud, sabotage, and espionage”

Applying big data analytics and artificial intelligence on employees language in email, chat, voice, text logs and other digital communication may uncover worrisome content, meaning, language pattern, and deviation in behavior, that may make it easier to spot indications that a user is a security risk or may perform malicious activity in the future.