Detecting Insider Threat Indicators

Venu Shastri - July 22, 2022

Cybersecurity is an absolute necessity in today’s networked world, and threats have multiplied with the recent expansion of the remote workforce. Hackers and cybercriminals who gain access to IT assets can seriously harm your organization’s operations, finances, reputation and competitive advantage. Understandably, IT security efforts tend to focus on combating these external threats. Priority one is keeping your sensitive information where it belongs: safe inside.

But how safe is it? Threats originating from inside an organization can cause just as much damage as external cyberattacks but often go unaddressed. Recognizing and responding to potential insider threats should be a key component of your strategy to protect and secure the information systems and sensitive data that keep your business running.

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Characteristics of Insider Threats

Insider threats can involve any trusted individual with knowledge of or access to your organization’s assets. Insiders include employees (current and former), organization members, vendors, custodial personnel, construction contractors and anyone with legitimate access to company facilities, equipment, devices or computer networks.

Insider Threats Defined

An insider threat refers to the potential for a person to leverage a position of trust to harm the organization through misuse, theft or sabotage of critical assets. Although infrastructure, personnel and equipment are possible targets, the primary asset at risk from insider threats is information. Proprietary information (i.e., intellectual property, or IP) and sensitive data are lucrative assets, so the IT networks and databases that manage information are especially vulnerable to insider threats.

When valuable information resources are compromised, far-reaching damage can result. Loss of data confidentiality, integrity and accessibility is not only expensive, it may also curtail your organization’s ability to operate. Some cyberattacks even threaten homeland security or undermine public health and safety.

Types of Insider Threats

Insider threats fall broadly into two categories:

  1. Unintentional insider threats result from complacency, negligence or poor judgment rather than from any intent to do harm. Losing a company device, ignoring computer security update notifications, accessing or discussing sensitive data in public places and failing to verify the identities of facility visitors are examples of unintentional threats. Simple mistakes such as clicking on an unknown hyperlink, leaving a confidential document at a shared printer or sending an email to an incorrect address are accidental threats that are not only unintentional but possibly not even recognized by the person responsible.
  2. Malicious insider threats involve an intention to do harm. The insider can be an individual acting alone or with accomplices and is usually motivated by either financial gain or retribution for perceived wrongs. Other malicious insider situations may involve collusion; in this scenario, an external hostile party, such as a cybercriminal network or foreign government, recruits or coerces the insider. Typical scenarios entail disclosure or sale of IP or sensitive data. Alternatively, the inside threat actor may intentionally delete, modify or corrupt an organization’s data or provide an unauthorized third party with access to organizational networks and IT systems.

External Threats

Cyberattacks that originate externally and are perpetrated by actors with no direct access to your organization’s resources are not considered to be insider threats. Rather than relying on legitimate users to help them bypass information security firewalls, criminals use hacking methods that do not require authorized access. Although not categorized as insider threats, external cyberattackers may target unwitting insiders as gateways for unauthorized entry into the organization’s data networks.

Five Common Insider Threat Indicators to Watch For

Behavioral warning signs are the key indicators of potential insider threats. Both digital fingerprint patterns and reported observations from colleagues and associates can bring an individual into focus as a potential threat.

Threat Indicators

Digital behavior anomalies can reveal a person as a potential insider threat. Five common indicators that an individual may be an insider cybersecurity risk are:

  • Use of unapproved personal electronic devices for organizational business
  • Authorization requests for access to drives, documents or applications beyond business need
  • Login or site access at odd hours
  • Unusual surges in traffic that may indicate data download or transfer
  • Pattern of recent access to sensitive or proprietary documents

Threat Detection

Insider threats originate with trusted individuals and are therefore notoriously difficult to detect. Insiders can do exceptional damage to your organization because they have ready and approved access to valuable assets. The sooner a potential threat can be identified and investigated, the more likely you are to prevent a breach and the consequences to your organization. Once data is compromised, the damage to an organization can be irreparable. Financial losses can be recouped in some instances but not without substantial time and effort devoted to legal proceedings. Some losses cannot be quantified or repaired, including IP loss, reputational damage and loss of competitive edge.

Potential Insider Threats

Behavioral observations may indicate a potential insider threat. Collaborators, supervisors, peers, subordinates and other close associates are uniquely positioned to notice certain behavioral patterns in an individual with authorized access to your organization’s assets. Employees should be aware of the responsibility to report behaviors that may signal vulnerability, including:

  • Violations of organizational policy (travel, expense reporting, safety, security, documentation)
  • Conflicts and confrontations with peers
  • Absenteeism, habits of late arrival and early departure, unpredictable schedule
  • Unreliability, skipping meetings, missing deadlines
  • Disruption of performance by financial, legal, medical or family stressors
  • Anger at perceived loss of professional status or career progression

How You Can Detect Insider Threats

Your organization’s ability to detect the threat from a malicious insider is key to protecting precious assets from loss or compromise. A well-designed set of tools and practices is essential for a successful insider threat program.

Choosing Insider Threat Detection Tools

Technology plays a primary role in a program to detect insider threat warning signs. Using artificial intelligence (AI) and data analytics, these software tools monitor activity, determine patterns and provide alerts when anomalies occur. Examples include:

  • User activity monitoring (UAM)
  • User and entity behavior analytics (UEBA)
  • Data loss prevention (DLP)
  • Security information event management (SIEM)

Although powerful, these tools must be tuned to meet your specific threat detection goals. Your organization’s needs will depend upon industry setting, culture, internal policies and of course critical assets. If a threat detection tool is not chosen carefully and adjusted to a particular environment, it may not necessarily be capable of distinguishing anomalies from background activity. Existing threats may go undetected, or false positive alerts may abound. In either case, organizational trust in the detection system is undermined and the tools will not deliver the protection you need.

Insider Threat Prevention Best Practices

Because IT touches every part of an organization, insider threat prevention is best approached as part of overall enterprise risk management. Every data ecosystem is unique, so prevention strategies must be tailored to your specific situation.

A critical first step in prevention is to identify and understand your entity’s key assets. Create a detailed database of all IT assets, including information on asset type, risk ranking and user access. This process will give you a full picture of your organization’s IT situation and provide insights into the types of tools you should employ to monitor it.

Further, choose analytical tools that can generate appropriate metrics, identify patterns and detect anomalous signals within your particular IT environment. Limit asset access to the least number of people necessary for business need, employ multifactor authentication (MFA), and narrowly restrict administrative permissions. Revisit configurations and settings regularly to ensure that they are optimized as your asset inventory evolves.

Technological approaches to threat prevention, although necessary, are only part of the solution. Employee engagement is also essential in a successful threat-prevention program. Clearly communicate the business need for IT asset protection, and educate employees on their individual responsibility to safeguard data. Training modules can help your employees recognize potential insider threats and understand proper procedures for reporting them.

To encourage active engagement in threat monitoring, emphasize a commitment to respect and privacy for those reporting concerning behaviors. Use regular reminders in the form of policy updates, questionnaires and case studies to reinforce insider threat awareness and create a culture that prioritizes security.

Importance of Early Detection

The earlier your team can detect an insider threat, the more likely you are to forestall a cybersecurity breach and its consequences. Even if a breach has already occurred, early detection can help minimize damage. If the attack is in progress, data outflow can be staunched, responsible individuals can be identified and their credentials revoked, and event analysis and remediation can begin immediately.

Performing an Insider Threat Assessment

If you have reason to suspect an insider threat, you must take immediate action to assess the validity of the threat and its potential risk to your organization.

Insider Threat Assessments Defined

When a possible insider threat is identified, whether through analytical tools or through personnel reporting channels, it must be assessed to determine whether there is a true risk and to decide next action steps. Any delay can be the difference between prevention and after-the-fact damage control. If you proactively establish a threat assessment program, you will be poised to address the situation efficiently and effectively, minimizing the opportunity for the threat to materialize and inflict serious damage.

How to Conduct an Insider Threat Assessment

Be prepared for rapid response to potential insider threat indicators by assembling a threat management team, including representatives from security, IT, human resources and legal departments. When a possible threat is identified, the team should gather and analyze information about the insider’s behaviors, possible intentions or motives, and ability to cause damage. From this analysis, the team may conclude that the concern is unfounded. If the concerns are deemed warranted, the risk level will determine whether the prudent course of action involves further careful employee monitoring or immediate intervention. Concerns for legality and privacy must be top of mind during the insider threat assessment.

Detection Solution With CrowdStrike

CrowdStrike’s mission is to provide the resources you need for insider threat management. With our cloud-based solutions, you can develop robust prevention and mitigation measures customized to your organization’s IT asset landscape.

The first step in protecting your organization’s assets is compiling an inventory. To help you get started, CrowdStrike has introduced Asset Graph, a new addition to the CrowdStrike Falcon® platform. This tool can help you discover and catalog all IT assets in your organization, understand their interconnected relationships and reveal potential vulnerabilities. Search and visualization options allow your IT security team to extract and evaluate data to address your organization’s unique business needs.

Once you identify the assets you need to protect, our Technical Risk Assessment, Compromise Assessment and Network Security Monitoring services are among the tools available to assist you in creating a framework to detect and mitigate insider threats.

Information is the lifeblood of your organization. Keep it safe from insider attack with the help of CrowdStrike’s comprehensive information security solutions.


Venu Shastri, a seasoned Identity and cybersecurity product marketeer, serves as Director, Product Marketing at CrowdStrike for Unified Endpoint & Identity Protection. With over a decade of experience in identity, driving product marketing and management functions at Okta and Oracle , Venu has a US patent on passwordless authentication. Prior to his identity experience, Venu had co-founded and drove product management for an enterprise social software start-up. Based out of Raleigh, NC, Venu holds an MBA from the University of Santa Clara and Executive Certification from MIT Sloan.