Internal Threats: Everything You Need to Know

Internal threats include all potential dangers that originate from within an organization. Also known as insider threats, these dangers include intentional threats from employees and business partners. They also include accidents: an employee spilling gatorade on a server rack counts as an internal threat, whether or not they did so intentionally.

Internal threats stand in contrast to external threats, which originate outside an organization. They’re also distinct from vulnerabilities. In risk management terms, a threat includes any potential danger that exploits a vulnerability to cause harm to an individual or organization. A dated computer system with known exploits is not an internal threat, then, but a vulnerability.

Types of Internal Threat Actors

A threat actor is a person or group that attacks a system, causing a security incident. Different types of internal threat actors vary by their relationship with the organization in question.

Employees

Often, employees pose the biggest risk to companies simply because of the sheer size of a workforce. A company that has hundreds of employees has hundreds of threat actors that could use their access to cause harm to the organization.

Both current and former employees can pose a risk. Current employees require access to certain systems to handle their duties. Past employees have knowledge of company systems and, if their credentials aren’t revoked upon their exit, may still have ways to tap into organizational data, devices, and more.

Keep in mind that not every employee threat actor has to be malicious in intent. Many risks are accidental in origin, and the typical employee is more likely to cause an accidental outage than intentionally attack the business. Everyone makes mistakes.

Contractors

Like employees, contractors may also need access to various systems to handle their responsibilities. In some cases, their credentials may have more limits, but they often still have the ability to cause harm.

Even former contractors can be a risk. First, they have knowledge of company operations. Second, if their access isn’t removed after they finish their time with the company, they may be able to gain entry into systems using their old credentials.

Business Partners

Many companies have outside business partners that have access to company systems and data. While these entities may never set foot inside the company’s offices, that doesn’t mean they can’t be a threat. Anyone with credentials could cause harm as long as their logins are active.

Service Providers

An increasing number of companies outsource some of their computing-related needs. As a result, they introduce a potential internal threat. Service providers with access to or control of systems or data can cause harm. Depending on their level of access or control, they may even be able to cause more damage than most other potential internal threats.

Equipment Failure

Not every internal threat comes from a conscious attempt to undermine a business. Just as external threats include natural disasters, internal threats include equipment failure.

Keep a given piece of hardware running long enough and it’s bound to fail at some point. Regular maintenance and equipment replacement can mitigate the risk of equipment failure – but it is a risk you must take into account when considering internal threats to your business.

Internal Attack Vectors

Attack vectors are the approaches a threat actor uses to gain access to a system or cause damage. For internal threats, this discussion will involve more than entry points, as many internal threat actors use company-provided options for access. It will also include the type of damage caused, providing a thorough overview of various kinds of incidents.

Here is a look at some of the most common internal attacks.

Sabotage

Any individual or entity that has access to systems or data usually has the ability to damage them. This could include erasing vital information, changing operational parameters, releasing proprietary information publicly or to competitors, or other acts that amount to sabotage.

Theft

Workplace theft can entail stealing products, hardware, or intangibles such as sensitive data and proprietary information. Stolen data can then be leveraged for financial gain, such as a payment for the stolen data made by a third party or funds received as a ransom. Notoriety can also be a motive for data theft, if releasing the information would bring attention to the thief.

Revenge could also be a form of reward. This is especially true if revealing the details would damage the company’s reputation, lead to legal troubles for the organization, hurt the company financially, or cause other harm.

Malware

Since an employee, business partner, or service provider may have direct access to critical data or systems, they could have the ability to install malware directly. Once in place, the malicious software can cause damage, the nature of which usually varies depending on the type of program involved.

Similarly, an approved system user could also intentionally create opportunities for malware that originates from outside of the company. This could include knowingly opening infected email attachments, visiting infected websites, or other like-actions.

Leakage

Often, leakage isn’t intentional. It occurs when a person mistakenly reveals sensitive information to an unauthorized party. For example, autocompleting the wrong email address without noticing and then sending the email could lead to leakage, as the content of the message ends up in the hands of someone other than the intended recipient.

However, leakage can be dangerous. Any time information is viewed by someone who isn’t authorized, it’s a security incident. Depending on the nature of what’s shared, the outcome can be incredibly damaging.

How to Spot Internal Threats

Internal threats develop for a variety of reasons. By understanding potential motivations, it’s possible to spot risks before they lead to cybersecurity incidents.

At times, actions made by the company can increase the odds of an impacted person, group, or entity becoming a threat. This can include, but is not limited to:

  • Firings
  • Layoffs
  • Business contract terminations
  • Not receiving a raise
  • Not receiving a promotion
  • Not receiving a bonus

All of the situations above could cause a person or business partner to become dissatisfied with the company. If they feel the move was unjustified, that could be enough to turn them into an insider threat.

Additionally, certain external factors may also cause risk to rise. Employees, contractors, business partners, or service providers struggling with debt or substance abuse issues may be at greater risk. People who experience these situations aren’t guaranteed to become a threat. Many people experience hardship and take no action against a current or past employer or business partner. But these situations can provide a motive for an insider attack.

In many cases, it’s possible to spot specific warning signs of a potential malicious insider. Logging into company systems at unusual hours, accessing a sensitive system that doesn’t align with the person’s responsibilities, or copying significant amounts of data could all signal an insider attack is either on the horizon or occurring.

How to Prevent Internal Attacks

In the world of cybersecurity, prevention is always best. By using the right approaches, you can reduce the risks posed by internal threats. If you aren’t sure where to begin, here are some best practices to use.

Mandatory Training for Everyone with Access

Cybersecurity training is crucial for preventing internal attacks. You can educate your employees, contractors, and business partners on security best practices, including how to recognize phishing attempts and suspicious attachments. Additionally, you can inform them on how to prevent leakage, the risks of unauthorized technology usage, and more.

Ideally, cybersecurity training should be mandatory for all new hires and partnerships. Additionally, requiring an annual refresher is wise, ensuring the information stays at the forefront of everyone’s minds.

Bring IT into the Employee Exit Process

Lingering credentials for individuals who no longer work with the company are a risk point. By bringing IT into the employee exit process, they can coordinate with HR to ensure that authorization is revoked at the proper time.

Additionally, if layoffs are announced in advance or HR is aware that an employee was passed over for a raise, promotion, or bonus, IT can closely monitor the activities of impacted employees. Additionally, they can increase scanning for patterns that may indicate an internal threat is developing, ensuring they catch malicious actions by someone who isn’t directly impacted but feels the company’s actions are a form of wrongdoing.

Stay on Top of Access Control

To reduce the risk of internal attacks, every business should carefully think through its access control policy. A strong policy works on the need-to-know principle, ensuring that all employees and business partners can only connect to systems or data they genuinely need. Additionally, as a person’s role in the company changes, you’ll want to review their access and implement any changes immediately.

Thoroughly Vet All Business Partners and Service Providers

If you are going to provide an outside entity with access to your data or systems, or are turning to them for computing resources, vet the company thoroughly. You want to ensure their security practices are robust and that their organization is on sound financial footing.

Focus on partners or providers with long-standing reputations. Often, companies with a significant history in their industry who are regarded well by others represent a lower risk than emerging companies.

Implement User Behavioral Analytics Solutions

User Behavior Analytics (UBA) – also known as User and Entity Behavior Analytics (UEBA) – is the process of analyzing user actions to identify potential threats. The solutions look for anomalous activity that falls outside of normal behavior for those with that particular function in the organization.

If a potential issue is identified, the UBA solution alerts designated personnel, such as members of the IT team. Then, the informed persons can take immediate action, potentially stopping the threat from causing harm.

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