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Insider Risk Management Fundamentals: 10 Best Security Practices for Implementation

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Insider-driven security incidents are increasing in frequency. According to the 2022 Cost of Insider Threats Global Report by the Ponemon Institute, 67% of companies experienced between 21 and 40 incidents in 2022, which is 7% more than in 2020.

Insiders with authorized access can fall victim to hackers’ attacks due to negligence or can deliberately compromise and severely damage the organization’s data and systems. 

In this article, we explore the fundamentals of managing insider risks and share 10 best practices to help you get started with insider risk management.

What are insider risks, and why is it critical to manage them?

Insider risks are negative consequences an organization may face as the result of actions by people with legitimate access to the organization’s internal systems or data. These risks can arise when employees, contractors, or partners, either maliciously or negligently, handle the organization’s assets in a risky and unsafe way.

To better understand what insider risks may look like in the corporate world, let’s take a look at some possible scenarios:

Insider risk examples

If you don’t address and appropriately manage insider risks, they can escalate into real insider threats to your organization. But how do these two concepts differ?

How do insider risks differ from insider threats?

Let’s first compare insider threat vs. insider risk. While these terms are often used interchangeably, they’re not identical. It’s essential to know the differences between these two concepts so you can accurately understand what to expect and how to efficiently plan your further actions.

Insider risk is a broad concept that covers everyone who handles sensitive data or any kind of process in your organization. Anyone regardless of their job title and intentions can pose an insider risk.

In contrast, only a small share of individuals who commit malicious actions within your network pose an insider threat.

Difference between insider risk and insider threat

Only about 1% of your insiders pose an insider threat and may actually cause security incidents in your organization. However, identifying that 1% is quite challenging. That’s why, rather than focusing on insider threats, organizations need to focus on insider risks.

“Not every insider risk becomes an insider threat; however, every insider threat started as an insider risk.”

The Rule of 3 for Proactive Insider Risk Management by Gartner (Subscription required)

Managing insider risks can help you either prevent them from escalating into insider threats or quickly identify insider threats if they have already appeared.

What are the consequences of poorly managed insider risks?

If an organization doesn’t appropriately manage insider risks, it increases the chances of those risks turning into insider threats and, consequently, security incidents. The potential losses may be harmful to the organization and may include the following: 

Best security practices of insider risk management
  • Financial losses — Money the organization has to spend responding to an incident may include compensation for affected parties as well as fines for non-compliance with IT requirements. 
  • Loss of intellectual property — An organization’s trade secrets, unique processes, methods, and other assets may be stolen or damaged during a security incident. This often leads to a decrease in the organization’s competitive advantage.
  • Reputational losses — An organization may suffer losses related to current and potential customers that lose trust in the brand and question their further cooperation with the organization after the incident. If customer data is compromised, these losses may be especially massive.
  • Operational disruption — This refers to resources an organization spends on eliminating disturbances in the organization’s internal processes and remediating the incident. These may be resources needed to repair systems or replace damaged hardware.

Examples of insider risk incidents

To see how insider risks can affect your organization in the real world, let’s take a look at two recent insider risk incidents:

Affected company

Type of incident

Data leak by former employees

Consequences

  • Personally identifiable information of more than 75,000 employees compromised
  • Potential legal liabilities with the data privacy regulations

In May 2023, Tesla discovered a data breach incident in which two former employees leaked the personal information of 75,735 employees to a German newspaper. When Tesla learned about the leak, the company initiated an internal investigation that identified the ex-employees as the source. Then, Tesla took legal action against the former employees to gain access to their electronic devices, which were believed to contain the stolen data. The compromised personally identifiable information included names, addresses, phone numbers, and email addresses.

Although it seems that no customer information was leaked in this data breach, similar incidents caused by departing and incoming employees can still lead to reputational and financial losses. Failure to protect the data of employees and customers can also make your organization subject to fines due to non-compliance with data privacy laws and regulations.

Affected company

Totota

Type of incident

Data breach at a supplier’s company

Consequences

  • Suspended manufacturing process
  • Revenue loss due to production deficit

In February 2022, another car manufacturer, Toyota, was compelled to cease its operations in Japan due to a cybersecurity breach that occurred at one of its suppliers, Kojima. This breach raised significant concerns since Kojima had access to Toyota’s manufacturing plants. To ensure data security, Toyota had no choice but to temporarily stop its operations. This unforeseen shutdown resulted in the loss of production for approximately 13,000 cars, which accounted for 5% of their monthly production target. The ripple effect of this breach extended to some of Toyota’s subsidiary companies, causing disruptions in their production processes and potentially impacting their overall financial performance.

This incident is a clear example of how third-party vendors with access to your organization’s IT infrastructure can also be a source of insider risks, even if the vendor has no malicious intent. Operational disruptions and financial losses caused by these kinds of incidents can be prevented with the help of proper third-party security risk management and supply chain risk management.

Read our article on insider-related data breaches for more examples of insider risk incidents.

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Key factors contributing to insider risks

Insider risks may be caused and amplified by a variety of factors, from the kinds of environments in which your employees work to security policies and measures your organization has in place. The most common factors contributing to insider risks include:

Common factors contributing to insider risks

Lack of visibility into user activity

Extensive access privileges

Weak cybersecurity policies

Expanded attack surface

Lack of employee awareness

Social engineering

Lack of visibility into user activity. If your organization lacks insight into what users are doing with your systems and data, it becomes challenging to detect and respond to suspicious behavior, making it easier for malicious insiders to operate undetected. Similarly, lack of visibility makes it hard for you to detect any potentially risky behavior of negligent insiders.

Extensive access privileges. Employees, partners, and third-party vendors with broad access to your organization’s resources have a higher potential to misuse or abuse their privileges, leading to security breaches. Highly privileged accounts can also become a target for external actors that can cause even more significant damage.

Weak cybersecurity policies. Poorly developed cybersecurity policies and security practices can create gaps and vulnerabilities that insiders and external attackers may exploit for malicious activities, often remaining undetected due to lax controls. For example, if your organization lacks a strong password management policy, an intruder may find it easier to gain unauthorized access to your system.

Expanded attack surface. The ongoing trend towards telecommuting, hybrid office work models, and cloud environments broadens your organization’s cyber attack surface, providing more entry points for insiders and external threat actors to compromise your systems and data.

Social engineering. Social engineering tactics manipulate individuals into revealing sensitive information or taking actions that may compromise your organization’s security. Insiders targeted by these methods can become unintentional threats, revealing critical data to malicious actors.

Lack of employee awareness. If you don’t regularly raise awareness of security best practices and how to recognize threats, your employees are more susceptible to falling victim to social engineering attacks or making errors leading to insider risks.

Core principles of insider risk management

While insider risks are present in every organization, not every organization lets those risks become real threats. Implementing insider risk management strategies in your organization can help you increase your chances of containing insider risks. But first of all, what is insider risk management?

Insider risk management is a set of measures, practices, and tools that focus on identifying and minimizing insider risks in an organization.

According to “The Rule of 3 for Proactive Insider Risk Management” by Paul Furtado and Jonathan Care (1 December 2021, Gartner subscription required), the key to effectively managing insider risks is to follow the so-called Rule of Three — a simple yet effective framework:

Insider risk management framework

The framework suggests that organizations must completely understand who poses a threat (threat types), what they are trying to do (threat activities), and how to mitigate the actor’s activity (mitigation goals). We’ll review each point below.

1. Threat types

Each type of threat actor poses a different level of insider risk to an organization and requires a different approach. The majority of insider risks in an organization come from these three types of insiders:

Share of threat actors in security incidents caused by insiders

Negligent users. These are the organization’s employees, partners, or third-party vendors that can damage or compromise the organization’s assets unintentionally. They may not even notice that their actions inflict harm on the organization.

Negligence may sound harmless. However, the Ponemon Institute states that negligence was the root cause of 56% of all insider incidents in 2021.

Malicious users. Those users within your network who intentionally perform activities that can damage your organization are called malicious users. These users can have various motivations, from financial gain to revenge on the company to plain boredom.

Despite being illegal and potentially resulting in legal action against the actor, malicious insider activity still accounts for many incidents. According to the same report by the Ponemon Institute, 26% of insider incidents are caused by malicious users.

Compromised users. Legitimate users of your organization’s network may become a target for malicious external attackers. If attackers manage to compromise legitimate corporate accounts through social engineering (e.g. phishing) or any other means, the users behind those accounts become compromised users.

Disguised as a legitimate user, an external attacker can spend enough time in your network to access your most valuable assets and use them for their ends. For instance, they may encrypt data and demand a ransom for decrypting it, steal data and sell it on the darknet, or destroy data to disrupt operations in your organization.

Although incidents related to compromised users only account for 18% of all insider incidents, they are the most expensive to remediate. The Ponemon Institute states that, on average, such incidents cost a company $804,997.

2. Threat activities

By knowing insider threat actors’ specific goals and motivations, an organization’s security officers can identify and implement the most effective countermeasures to minimize the risks they pose.

When insider risks grow into insider threats, they are usually categorized into one of the following types of illegal activity:

Fraud — When a malicious employee, business partner, or service provider exploits a position of trust in an organization to either gain financially or cause harm to others.

Data theft — When malicious users intentionally move valuable data outside of the organization’s systems. Insiders can also steal data for personal gain or organizational damage.

Sabotage — When insiders deliberately disrupt business operations in an organization by deleting important data, installing malware, or using other means.

3. Mitigation goals

This section of the framework focuses on what measures an organization should implement to minimize insider risks. Those measures are divided into three groups:

Deter. Focus on raising cybersecurity awareness among employees, business partners, and vendors. As well, deterrence is about understanding the cybersecurity policies you implement in your organization.

Detect. Having the right tools and personnel to promptly detect any signs of malicious activity is critical. Provide visibility into how insiders handle your organization’s critical assets.

Disrupt. Once detected, malicious activity should be stopped. Your organization should have reliable software tools to create custom rules for blocking users and processes. 

If you have the means to properly implement the Rule of Three, it can be very efficient for insider risk management. In the next section, we go over several best practices that can help you enforce this framework in your organization.

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10 security best practices for insider risk management

Cybersecurity Insiders’ 2023 Insider Threat Report states that 74% of surveyed organizations are at least moderately vulnerable to insider threats. This shows how crucial it is for companies to implement effective insider risk management practices to nip insider threats in the bud.

Here, we take a look at 10 security practices that can help you establish a strong foundation for your organization’s insider threat management program.

insider risk management best practices

1. Regularly assess and prioritize insider risks

Assessing and prioritizing insider risks can help you determine your organization’s most vulnerable data assets and network areas. Cybersecurity risk assessment involves examining your organization’s current protection against different threats, including negligent, malicious, and compromised insiders. At the same time, insider risk prioritization is the process of ranking the likelihood and potential impact of insider risks on your organization’s critical systems, data, and reputation.

Assessment and prioritization results give you a clear understanding of what security measures your organization requires the most.

When assessing and prioritizing insider risks, focus on your hybrid and remote workforce, how they connect to the organization’s network, and what devices they use.

2. Control access to systems and data

By granting insiders numerous privileges by default, you increase the chance of sensitive data exfiltration and other insider threats. Minimizing insider risks requires minimizing access by employees, partners, and vendors to only what is necessary to perform their duties.

You can add an additional layer of protection by implementing a zero-trust architecture, requiring approval or user identity verification before granting access to a critical asset.

Adopting the principle of least privilege may be helpful in this regard. This approach entails giving each user the minimum level of access rights and only elevating privileges when necessary. You can go further and implement the just-in-time PAM approach that allows users to receive privileges on an as-needed basis, and only for a specific period of time.

3. Manage password use

Cybercriminals can get access to your organization’s valuable data and systems if they manage to crack or compromise your insiders’ corporate accounts. To safeguard your organization from phishing and brute-force attacks, consider developing a password management policy. This policy should include recommendations your insiders need to follow, such as using different passwords for each account, choosing lengthy passwords, and changing passwords regularly.

However, the optimal solution would be to implement a password management system [PDF] that grants insiders access to your organization’s endpoints without revealing the actual login credentials. These tools typically offer automated password rotation and password checkout, which can further enhance your password security.

4. Ensure data security

Securing sensitive data is one of the most critical objectives of insider risk management. The most common security practice that can protect your data from unauthorized parties is encryption — using a cryptographic algorithm to make data unreadable to users who don’t have a corresponding decryption key.

Performing full, differential, and incremental backups is yet another step to protecting your data. Regular backups can help you ensure quick restoration of business operations after your organization’s data is physically or digitally damaged.

Disposing of data you no longer use is vital, so consider regularly erasing inactive and unneeded data.

5. Continuously monitor activity of employees and third parties

Unless you monitor your employees’ and vendors’ activity in your infrastructure, it will be impossible to determine if users intentionally or negligently jeopardize the safety of your assets.

Ensure transparency into user activity within your network. Consider deploying user activity monitoring tools that would allow you to view user sessions in real time.

When you can access and watch any user session where insiders access or handle your sensitive data and systems, you can enhance the security of those valuable assets. Continuous monitoring gives you visibility into the activity of your insiders and allows for early detection of and a timely response to suspicious activity.

Many dedicated monitoring tools also offer keylogging and session recording capabilities that help when performing audits and conducting incident investigations.

User Activity Monitoring with Ekran System

6. Keep a close watch on privileged users

Privileged users within your network have elevated access rights and therefore pose higher risks than ordinary users. That’s why it’s imperative to pay especially close attention to their activity.

By closely monitoring privileged users, you improve your chances of seeing early signs of privileged account compromise or privilege misuse. Privileged user monitoring provides transparency into user actions within your network.

Consider getting rid of shared privileged accounts within your systems. If that’s not an option, at least use secondary authentication so you can attribute various actions to specific users with access to those accounts. This will help you unmistakably identify who did what under shared accounts.

As well, make it impossible for privileged users to modify activity logs, and ensure their authenticity.

7. Ensure a quick response to possible risks

Despite having an activity monitoring tool in place, detecting when an insider starts acting maliciously may be difficult. Automatic user behavior tracking and analysis can make insider risk management easier by accelerating your response to suspicious actions.

One more handy tool for user behavior analysis is user and entity behavior analytics (UEBA) [PDF]. It analyzes user behavior and identifies what behavioral patterns are normal for specific users. As soon as a user’s behavior deviates from those patterns, the UEBA tool notifies security officers about the unusual activity.

By utilizing platforms that offer real-time alerts and incident response functionality, you can configure custom notifications to inform about detected suspicious user behavior. These notifications allow your security team to react quickly, increasing the chances of stopping malicious actions before they cause significant harm. As well, such platforms enable you to automate certain actions, such as blocking a user or closing an application.

8. Increase employees’ cybersecurity awareness

With negligence being the top cause of insider security incidents, educating your employees about cybersecurity should be one of your priorities. Help your employees clearly comprehend your security policies, why it’s vital to follow them, and what may be the consequences of not doing so. Make sure your employees acquire basic skills in recognizing and responding to potential threats.

Conducting regular cybersecurity training for both in-office and remote employees can significantly reduce the number of security mistakes and, consequently, reduce insider risks.

9. Regularly review user access rights

Access control is an ongoing process that goes beyond simply granting permissions to users. As you promote employees, assign new responsibilities, hire new personnel, and collaborate with new service providers, your organization’s structure and access requirements evolve.

User access reviews involve examining who has access to what data or systems and determining if that access is necessary for users’ job functions. Performing regular user access reviews helps to ensure that current access permissions align with the organization’s current business and security needs.

10. Perform regular security and IT compliance audits

Systematic security and IT compliance audits can help you identify vulnerabilities in the company’s IT systems that insiders could potentially exploit to commit fraud, theft, or sabotage.

Regular audits allow you to assess how effective your current security measures are and identify gaps in your security policies. You can determine what areas you can improve to reduce insider risks and ensure compliance with local and industry standards, laws, and regulations.

IT Compliance with Ekran System

How Ekran System may assist you in implementing insider risk management fundamentals

Ekran System is a comprehensive insider risk management solution that offers a complete set of tools to deter insider risks, detect threats, and disrupt malicious activity. Ekran System’s insider risk management technologies include:

Capabilities of Ekran System for insider risk management
  • User activity monitoring enables you to monitor and record the user activities of your employees and third parties across your infrastructure in video format. It lets you view live or recorded user sessions with rich metadata providing context: opened applications, visited websites, executed commands, keystrokes, and connected USB devices.
  • Privileged access management lets you granularly manage insiders’ access permissions while securing critical endpoints across your network. It offers a wide range of functionalities to take control over privileged access, ranging from identity management and 2FA to securely authenticate users to secret management and password checkout to safeguard login credentials. The access request and approval workflow can help you further enhance the protection of critical systems. 
  • Alerts and incident response allow you to track and detect suspicious actions within your network automatically and react to them quickly. Customizable alerts and the AI-powered UEBA module can notify you about users’ suspicious behavior, while incident response functionality can block processes or users once a rule is triggered.
  • Auditing and reporting tools provide you with all necessary data for a comprehensive analysis of your current cybersecurity landscape. Ekran System offers a wide range of reports to meet specific requirements. Additionally, it seamlessly integrates with Microsoft Power BI, allowing you to present complex data in a clear and easily understandable way.

Conclusion

Being on the lookout for insider risks is essential for any organization. While organizations can have extensive protection from outside attacks, it is critical to remember that security risks can come from within and to manage insider risks wisely.

It’s not uncommon for employees, partners, or contractors you trust to negligently or intentionally compromise your organization’s data and systems. As the consequences of such actions can lead to insider threats, it’s important to take proactive measures to minimize insider risks.

Combining fundamental insider risk management principles and security best practices with reliable software tools like Ekran System can help you more easily deal with insider risks and ensure that your critical assets are safe.

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