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Insider Threats: Unveiling the Hidden Danger 

Insider threats

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In today’s complex digital landscape, where corporations are constantly navigating the ever-expanding realm of cyber threats, one danger often underestimated is that which comes from within—the insider threat. Despite the prevailing notion that external hackers are the primary perpetrators of security breaches, insiders, or employees within an organization, can pose a significant risk. In this article, we will delve deeper into the realities of insider threats, exploring how they exploit companies, their employees, and the profound effects they can have on a corporation, both financially and operationally.

Insider threats

Understanding Insider Threats

Insider threats are multifaceted, ranging from unintentional negligence to malicious intent. One of the most notorious cases in recent history is that of Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor. In 2013, Snowden leaked classified information, exposing the vulnerabilities within organizations when it comes to safeguarding sensitive data. We can boil insider threats down to two main types:

  • Malicious Insiders: Individuals with malicious intent seek to harm the organization for personal gain or ideological reasons. Their actions may include stealing sensitive data, sabotaging systems, or engaging in other harmful activities.
  • Negligent Insiders: Often unintentional, negligent insiders compromise security through careless actions. For instance, by clicking on phishing emails, sharing passwords, or mishandling sensitive information.

Exploitation Tactics

Malicious Insiders exploit their positions through various means. They may manipulate individuals psychologically to gain access to confidential information. For example, well-crafted internal phishing emails might trick an employee into revealing passwords or providing access to secure areas. Most commonly seen are insider threats using their knowledge of internal systems to exploit their own company for personal gain.

Real World Examples:

  • UBS Rogue Trader (2011): Kweku Adoboli, a trader at UBS, exploited his knowledge of internal controls to make unauthorized trades, resulting in losses exceeding $2.3 Billion. Adoboli’s actions underscore the potential financial impact of insider threats and the need for robust monitoring and control mechanisms.
  • SGMC Data Theft by Former Employee (2021): A former employee of the South Georgia Medical Center in Valdosta, Georgia, downloaded private data from the medical center’s systems to his USB drive the day after quitting. Patients’ test results, names, and birth dates were leaked. The medical center had to provide all affected patients with services including free credit monitoring and identity restoration. This is an example of a malicious insider threat where the insider was angry, discontent, or had other personal reasons to harm the organization.
  • Inside Twitter Agents fell prey to Social Engineering (2020): Hackers compromised multiple high-profile Twitter accounts using a spear phishing campaign against Twitter employees to promote a bitcoin scam. Initially, attackers sought information about internal systems and processes. Eventually, they found the right employees to target and gained access to account support tools that helped them break into 130 Twitter accounts. This is an example of how employees could inadvertently become an insider threat after falling for a phishing email or social engineering scam.

The Devastating Effects

The effects from successful insider attacks can be truly devastating to a company, and can affect an organization on different fronts:

  • Financial Impact: Insider threats can lead to direct financial losses. There are also additional costs associated with investigating and mitigating the damage. Legal consequences and reputational damage further compound the financial impact, requiring extensive resources for recovery.
  • Operational Disruption: The aftermath of an insider threat can result in significant operational disruption. Systems may need to be shut down or reconfigured, leading to downtime and loss of productivity. Rebuilding trust with clients and partners can be a lengthy process, impacting long-term business relationships.

Protecting Against Insider Threats

So, what can we do to keep ourselves and our companies safe from insider threats? Here are some practical steps to take to help improve the security posture of a business:

  • Employee Education: Investing in comprehensive employee education and awareness programs is crucial. By training employees to recognize and resist social engineering tactics, companies empower their workforce to be the first line of defense against insider threats. Employees should be made aware that they may inadvertently become the “insider threat” if negligent to phishing or vishing attacks.
  • Access Controls and Monitoring: Implement strict access controls, monitor user activities, and regularly review permissions. This can help organizations detect and prevent malicious activities. The principle of least privilege ensures that employees have access only to the resources necessary for their roles. Proper monitoring will aid in catching suspicious activity that could have led to a breach in security.
  • Incident Response Plan: Having a well-defined incident response plan is essential. This enables companies to respond swiftly and effectively when an insider threat is detected. It also minimizes the potential damage and facilitates a smooth recovery process.
  • Technology Solutions: Leverage advanced cybersecurity technologies, such as Data Loss Prevention (DLP) systems, endpoint protection, and user behavior analytics. Doing so can help organizations proactively identify and mitigate insider threats. These technologies serve as a crucial line of defense in safeguarding sensitive data and preventing unauthorized access.


The truth about insider threats is that they present a clear and present danger to corporations. Real-world examples underscore the financial and operational havoc that can result from insider actions. By understanding the tactics employed by malicious insiders and implementing robust security measures, corporations can better protect themselves, their employees, and their invaluable assets, from the insidious threat that exists within their own walls. The key lies in fostering a culture of cybersecurity awareness, implementing proactive monitoring mechanisms, and leveraging cutting-edge technologies, to stay one step ahead of those who would exploit the trust placed in them.

Written by:
Josten Peña
Human Risk Analyst at Social-Engineer, LLC

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