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Cybersecurity from the inside out — Guarding against insider threats

The past few years have seen a remarkable shift in the workplace as we know it. In the age of the Great Resignation, workforces are facing rampant turnover, with new employees entering and others exiting at a rapid rate. Because of their preexisting access to company systems and sensitive data, departing employees pose a high risk of insider threat. If approached by malicious outsiders, they may be tempted to sell this information or allow unauthorized access to the network or premises. At the same time, these organizations are negotiating new work models, both hybrid and fully remote, leading to even more vulnerabilities that many organizations are not equipped to handle. 

What steps can be taken to protect known and unknown assets?

 

Who are insider threats?

Insider threat actors can be anyone within the organization who has sufficient motivation, whether they are a low-level employee or an executive. The individual may consider themselves worthy of greater compensation, some don’t consider their actions malicious or wrong, segregation of duties may be relaxed, or a combination of opportunity and motive. Whatever the seniority level of the malicious actor, the most common rationale is an individual’s self-justification. When investigating fraud and insider threat, the “I should be paid what I’m worth” justification occurs more often and in higher cost incidents than any other. In addition to those currently working within an organization, malicious outsiders may also attempt to enter as contractors, interns, suppliers, or in the guise of an employee. 

 

How do insider threat attacks happen?

Most insider threats are facilitated because the organization’s systems and crown jewels are neither well-known nor well contained. For example, copies of the customer relationship management (CRM) system are duplicated, stored in cloud buckets, extracted to spreadsheets, and quickly moved out of management and the security team’s control. Ensuring that these crown jewels are defined, delimited and monitored is key to limiting the ability of an insider to harm the organization unnoticed. 

Likewise, identity sprawl occurs despite best efforts at identity and access management (IAM) efforts. The sprawl includes “transactional non-repudiation” risk. This old system auditing term defines a condition where every transaction is verifiably connected to a specific account and that account to a human. Eliminate shared passwords and generic accounts, and implement simple but inflexible accountability where every user and asset is accounted for. 

Zombie accounts, forgotten systems, and other assets copied to an unnoticed location all facilitate insider threats. Often a malicious insider will move the data they intend to exfiltrate to an innocuous location and leave it there while waiting and watching. If no one on the security or management teams notice, then they feel safe to continue with the data exfiltration and theft. Unnecessary accounts used by the threat actor to repudiate their actions follow the same pattern. The actor may create spurious accounts on systems with access to crown jewels, then wait a week, month, beyond quarter end and further, before using that account to covertly steal confidential data.

 

How can they be prevented?

As new members join, security and management teams must get ahead of potential infiltrators. It is far more important — and ultimately easier — to stop fraud and insider threats before they occur than to detect and respond to them. Controls over management actions are key to mitigating the statistically largest volume of insider threat and fraud. System tools, machine learning algorithms and applications generate voluminous, distracting alerts. Baselining human/system interaction requires far more time than most people expect. While teams are investigating false flags, the real insider threat occurs sub rosa.

Encourage employees to be vigilant and understand what to look out for. Sharing passwords, installing software, attaching devices — whatever the stated intention — should be an immediate red flag and cause for employees, without stigma, to report to the security team and management. Especially in the new hybrid work model, employees will frequently see unfamiliar faces when they head into the office. Make it a proud culture where everyone is delighted to prominently display their badges and ask others who aren’t to show it.

 

What about employees working from home?

On the remote side of the new hybrid work model, valuable insider threat diversion and detection tools are limited. Although the signs of an insider threat are often broadcast by the employee themselves, it is infinitely more challenging to notice a change in behavior virtually. In this remote setting, individuals are limited when it comes to connecting face-to-face with a coworker when they seem angry, disgruntled, or suddenly disconnected. Make extra effort to connect with the people on your team, assess morale, weigh sudden and dramatic changes in attitude, and seek to intervene and help rather than place the employee under suspicion. Many insider threats are thwarted before they become a threat because of a well-timed employee assistance program (EAP) introduction, a gentle one-on-one with a manager, or a team morale boosting event.

Human-to-human connection is the key sensor and diffuser of insider threat and fraud. In most organizations, that connection is limited by the new work style. It is crucial to avoid relying upon signals-based intelligence to identify insider threats and do the harder, slower work of connecting with people, department by department, manager by manager. This will bear more fruit, reduce risk, and improve the signals you do rely upon to mitigate fraud and insider threats.

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