Security incidents caused by insiders 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:
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?
While the terms insider risk and insider threat 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.
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 for the organization and may include the following:
- 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 was 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.
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 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:
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:
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.
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 program.
1. Regularly assess and prioritize insider risks
Conducting an assessment and prioritizing insider risks can help you determine your organization’s most vulnerable data assets and network areas. Insider risk assessment involves examining your organization’s current protection against 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.
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 your 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 was physically or digitally damaged.
It’s also vital to dispose of data that you no longer use, 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.
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 to differentiate between actions of users that have 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 tracking and analysis of user behavior 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 on 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.
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 arsenal includes:
- User activity monitoring enables you to monitor and record 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.
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.
Request a free trial of Ekran System to start implementing insider risk management fundamentals today.