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Blog Platform, Products, & Services Insider Threat: The Risk That Never Goes Away
Mar 03 2020

Insider Threat: The Risk That Never Goes Away

The “insider threat” has been one of the greatest threats since the beginning of IT. One of the earliest insider threat cases I worked on involved spinning the rounding error of a bill calculation into a separate account. While it was a minuscule dollar amount on a transaction basis, at volume it was real money!

Over the years, the insider threat still remains dominant. The biggest security breaches I have investigated have all been an insider and were often not disclosed because the breach was in a business process and did not result in a public disclosure of regulated data. These types of breaches go vastly underreported due to the brand damage they bring to the company, and without a requirement, executive teams will often decide not to prosecute the case. When you look at breach notification statistics, recognize that the number is only a small portion of the actual breaches that occur. 

How Has Insider Threat Evolved?

Complex business systems and access requirements have enabled a different kind of insider. One that is looking to do their job, just not the way you intended. These insiders, power users, and untrained users shoot the gaps in our systems and processes to be more efficient. They do so in the name of the customer, the business, and many times in the heat of the moment.  I like to say they did all the wrong things for all the right reasons. This insider while well-defined has also evolved. As users moved to client-server and web applications they also began to have more access to more and more data and systems. These users were targets for common attacks known as “phishing,” “whaling,” “spear phishing,” and “business systems compromise,” with email being the primary means for attackers to target their prey. 

Looking forward, the insider threat is going to continue and, due to the mobilization of the workforce, it will only grow in frequency and difficulty to detect. The movement of systems from on-premise to cloud applications makes it more difficult to detect an insider or threat agent posing as an insider. The data is not in the applications or organizations host, does not ride on the networks we built and no longer resides in systems we own or control. An insider can now be at our company or at the application providers company. With the paradigm shift in the consumption and delivery of business systems and data one would think the programs would need to have rapid change as well. 

Protecting Against Insider Threat

However, I am here to say, while there is rapid change in technology, there is not rapid change needed in the program and approach. Insiders are largely triggered by emotional events. While these events are not ones that a company can easily support the identification, education, and systems to support a strong insider threat program can not be any easier to deploy. 

First, strong background checks, general awareness, and targeted education to high value employees is key in turning an insider from malicious to benign. The systems most of us have can let users know, that while we don’t always see them, our systems, processes, and culture does. Alerts, daily action reports, and notices to users on their behavior will make them think twice about their actions. It also can be leveraged to coach an unknowing or untrained user to do the right action such as leveraging a secure file transfer system provisioned by the company over email or other systems. This awareness will also help users identify if they have been targeted as they know their actions better than we do. 

Another control we all can leverage and historically have not been able to is analytic systems using strong statistical analysis are a huge game changer. These systems are only becoming smarter, as they become supercharged with AI and ML analytics and engines which can learn what is and isn’t normal behavior. While these technologies and approaches are at your fingertips, the trick is the pivot your program must make to get the visibility, control, and ability to notify the users of their actions. 

Start by taking a look at your systems and adjust your strategy for insider threat management to include the growing evolution of the threat from “cloud-first” or “cloud-only” IT strategies and how this impacts your security strategy. Next evaluate your ability to do deep analysis on the traffic, understanding the user, the data, the actions, the source, and the destination. These are your context for a baseline in your analytic systems, but also the baseline for education and awareness. Lastly make sure you have inline support to stop and, in some cases, get justification for the users actions. Many times this simple step will stop the user from proceeding, but it also will break many automated scripts that are trying to exfiltrate data to cloud systems.

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About the author
James Christiansen is Netskope’s vice president of cloud security transformation and leader of the Global Chief Strategy Office. He is focused on enhancing Netskope’s global clients understand the challenges and solutions of cloud deployments by helping drive thought leadership in cloud security transformation.
James Christiansen is Netskope’s vice president of cloud security transformation and leader of the Global Chief Strategy Office. He is focused on enhancing Netskope’s global clients understand the challenges and solutions of cloud deployments by helping drive thought leadership in cloud security transformation.