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Innocent insider threats: Defending against human error

By Adenike Cosgrove, Cybersecurity Strategist, International at Proofpoint

Insider threats are notoriously hard to detect. Keeping malicious attackers out is challenging enough, defending against those already on the inside is a different proposition entirely. An insider threat does not need to bypass as many defences, it may raise no suspicion and it can often go undetected. In fact,it takes an average of 77 days to spot and contain an insider incident.

All forms of insider threats are on the increase. Last year, insiders cost organisations $11.45m, up 31% on 2018.

While the consequences of such threats can be devastating, those behind the most common insider threat have no malicious intent. Almost two-thirds of insider incidents reported last year pertained to employee or contractor negligence. In other words, simply down to human error.

Negligent insiders come in many forms with many characteristics. What they lack is motive. And this makes them difficult to defend against.

As always, it’s better to prevent a threat than to detect one. The key is to remain pro-active. Identify common errors, ensure employees are adequately trained, and implement fail-safes where possible to mitigate inevitable human error.

Counting the cost of negligent insiders

An insider threat does not need malicious intent to cause substantial damage. Numerous global organisations have paid a heavy price for employee and contractor negligence. Some of the biggest breached have been triggered by a single human error.

Phishing remains a huge issue for cybersecurity teams. Over half of organisations experienced a successful attack last year, yet despite its ubiquity, only 61% of the global workforce are familiar with the term.

It only takes one employee to click on one malicious link to bring about a world of financial and reputation damage – as Sony Pictures can attest. The company spent $35m repairing IT systemsin 2014 after several high-level executives fell for phishing scams. The attackers leaked intellectual property and sensitive emails, as well as stealing over 100 terabytes of data.

The loss of a privileged user’s credentials, be it through phishing or any other means, can have a devastating impact. Once compromised, credentials can be used over sustained periods to access sensitive information, divert funds, cripple networks and much more.

Whatever the nature of an insider threat, the longer it goes undetected, the heavier the price. Those contained within 30 days cost an average of $7.12m while those that take more than 90 days to contain cost an average of $13.71m.

Are innocent insiders putting your organisation at risk?

All organisations are at risk of insider threats – particularly those caused by negligence. No matter the tools and controls we put in place, we’ll never eradicate human error. It’s part of each and every one of us. However, the bigger the organisation, the bigger the risk – and the more severe the consequences.

The number of insider threats experienced increases in line with headcount, as does the financial impact. Those with a headcount between 25,000 and 75,000 spent an average of $17.92m over the last year dealing with insider-related incidents, compared to $6.92m spent by those with a headcount between 500 and 1,000.

By far the leading risk factor as far as negligent insiders are concerned is knowledge and awareness, or the lack thereof.End-users across all job levels and industries are inadequately educated about common risks and their role in defending against them. This is down to a lack of continued and comprehensive training.

A reported 68% of executives and senior managementdo nothave a good understanding of persistent threats and how they can have a negative impact on organisations. Worse still, 60% do not understand that cyberattacks are an ongoing concern.

Defending from within

Fighting insider threats is a complex process. Particularly when the ‘attackers’ have no intention of carrying out an attack. Threats can be hard to define and harder to detect.

Any defence must focus on three key areas – your technology, your processes, and most importantly, your people.

All organisations need solutions in place to monitor user activity and flag any unusual requests and system access. Make use of tools and technology to limit access to sensitive information and to prohibit the copying or export of any such data.

This technology must be backed up with clearly defined, easy to follow processes regarding everything from device management to network access and acceptable use. Employees must be aware of the consequences of failing to abide by these policies.

Finally, equip your people with the skills and knowledge they need to protect your organisation. This is much more than a box-ticking exercise. Training must be continued and comprehensive.

If your employees do not carry out simulated attacks or regularly undertake in-person security workshops, your training is likely inadequate. If they fail to understand the threat posed to your organisation by negligence or are unaware of the role they play in defending against cyberattacks, then your organisation is definitely at risk.