The malicious insider: Behind the security front door

Smart Cybersecurity Handbook 2022 Cyber Security

What if the person that just broke down your corporate defences is someone you trusted? This is not a drill. This is a question that around 66% of organisations have been asking and that the other 34% should be prioritising.

At a time when the cybersecurity threat has reached an unparalleled high and reports are showing dramatic increases in successful breaches and hacks, the malicious insider is the security vector that no company should ignore. The disgruntled employee, the greedy employee, the employee that’s leaving and thinks nothing of taking the data with them – these are the people that can have as serious an impact on your business, reputation, compliance and security posture as those who accidentally click on a phishing email.

“A significant percentage of data breaches involve the human element, whether this is malicious or by mistake, it’s still a percentage that no organisation can afford to ignore,” says Paul Grapendaal, head of managed security services at Nclose. “The most common form of malicious insider is the person who has a clear intent to steal information, sabotage the business or commit fraud. It’s an often-overlooked risk, most companies set their laser sights on the inadvertent insider threat – the person who accidentally released ransomware or clicked that link.”

Difficult to detect

The challenge with the malicious insider is that the threat is easily missed until it is too late. It can be difficult to detect the person who is about to commit the crime prior to the attack, however, it is not impossible. Invariably, the person has already shown some behavioural signs that point to frustration with the company, or a tendency to engage in illicit behaviour.

“If someone is unhappy at the company, they can do a lot of damage before it’s detected,” says Grapendaal. “They can delete sensitive information, take essential systems offline and cost the business significant time and money trying to minimise the damage. Some people will be more destructive in their approaches, while others may simply want the profit. The latter will be more likely to steal data, or client and proprietary information for personal gain.”

The first step is to ensure that security is a collaborative exercise across all the departments. That way, if an employee exhibits strange behaviour, or suddenly resigns or delivers poor performance, then they are actively identified from the outset. If HR and team leads are alerted to the risk, then they can potentially identify candidates most likely to steal or do harm. But companies can’t monitor everyone and someone resigning or not working to a high standard can just as easily mean they don’t like the job rather than they are setting out to undertake a malicious attack. So, how can the business protect against this unexpected and potentially high-risk attack?

Strategically protect data and systems

“First, the company needs to understand what its critical data is and then put robust protections in place around it,” says Grapendaal. “Critical information needs to be monitored and reviewed frequently, as does any access to this information. Ensure that access to this data is only granted by specific individuals and then monitor their access for any discrepancies. Are they suddenly accessing it at 1 am? Are they downloading information in vast quantities? These are all touchpoints that the business can use to protect its data and systems strategically.”

This can be further managed by ensuring that the people you hire undertake checks before they are allowed access to sensitive information and data. This may sound like a movie, but the reality is that your information is valuable to the attacker and invaluable to you, so the best defence is to hire people that are trustworthy and unlikely to become malicious insiders or threats to the business. Add to this robust governance, clear security policies and a zero-trust model and you’re building a solid cybersecurity foundation that can adapt, evolve and become a part of the company culture.

“Create visibility around data protection and controls, monitor who accesses your information, identify your critical data and how it flows within your business and work with a trusted security partner that can help you manage every one of these touchpoints effectively,” concludes Grapendaal.

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