Modern organizations rely on lots of people to function smoothly. Hundreds of thousands of people have access to sensitive company data at any given moment. These people include employees, former employees, vendors, partners, and contractors. These points of access are referred to as insider threats in cybersecurity terms. People with special permission to access information, data, or resources in an organization are called "insiders". They can use this access for their benefit.

Who is an ‘Insider’?

An insider is an individual with legitimate access to a company's systems and data. This access includes resources, sensitive information, or trade secrets. Insiders are usually employed by the organization. However, some individuals with privileged access to company data can also be considered insiders. This includes partners, vendors, or contractors. A few more insider threat examples include:

  • Someone that the organization trusts who has access to sensitive knowledge - such as board member information.
  • Former employees of the company who know the daily functions, business strategies, goals, plans, etc.
  • People with regular and continuous access to the company itself - such as cleaners, repairmen, contractors, freelancers, etc.
  • People who are outsourced by the company to help develop their products or services and have access to trade secrets.

What is Insider Threat In Cyber Security

What is an Insider Threat?

Insider threats occur when a cyber-attack is carried out by someone classified as an ‘insider.’ Data breaches are the biggest concern when it comes to insider threats. The Shangrila Hotel incident is an example of a Data breach. In these attacks, the data accessed is sold or exposed to the public. This harms the company's brand.

Insider threats can be used for financial gain. People can sell data to the highest bidder on the dark web for profit. Most of the stolen data contains client details. This data can then be used to carry out phishing or ransomware attacks. In 2019, a Siemens contract programmer admitted to inserting “logic bombs” into a client’s spreadsheets with the intention of creating additional work and money for himself whenever the software malfunctioned.

Exposure of client or personal information can have serious consequences for a company's reputation. It can also be exploited for espionage, terrorism, corruption, organized crime, workplace violence, and sabotage.

An insider threat attack can also be the starting point for hackers to launch further attacks on a specific company. As such, it can be expensive for companies to protect themselves. In 2020, IBM found that insider threat attacks cost an organization, on average, US$ 11.45 million. The report also highlighted that negligent employees or contractors were the root cause of more than half of reported incidents.

What are the different types of Insider Threats?

Insiders vary in motivation, awareness, access level, and intent. There are usually two types of insider threats: intentional and unintentional. There is a third category for other forms.

Intentional Threats

This is when an insider deliberately sets out to damage an organization or seek financial gain. Intentional insider threats are often also called “malicious insiders” because their motivations are usually vengeful or destructive. Several intentional insider threats aim to seek revenge on a company for perceived wrongdoing. This includes failure to meet their expectations, lack of recognition for their work, termination, mass lay-offs, and more.

An intentional insider threat may act against a company in several ways. These include leaking sensitive information, sabotaging equipment, harassment, violence, or theft of data. These actions may be taken to use the obtained information against the company.

Examples of intentional insider threats will include:


Turncloaks refer to employees who have turned against their employer, including whistleblowers. They now pose an intentional threat to the company's security by bringing certain information to light.


A collaborator is an individual who cooperates with threat actors outside of an organization. They then use their user access to help those outsiders to steal data, information, or intellectual property. Collaborators can also fall into the collusive insider threats category.

Lone wolves

As the name suggests, a lone wolf is an individual who acts on their own to hurt a company. They work without external influence or manipulation and are guided by their self-interest and ambition to cause harm. A lone wolf searches for weaknesses in code or software. They aim to gain higher levels of permission to search for confidential data. Their skills and knowledge make them especially dangerous if they get access.

Unintentional Threats

While it may seem unusual, there are occasions when data can be lost or stolen due to simple human error. An unintentional insider threat is when information about an organization is lost or stolen as a result of negligence. This type of insider threat usually occurs as a result of carelessness or lack of information. It leads to the insider unknowingly making mistakes or creating a gap in the company’s cybersecurity. Common examples of cyber security risks include:

All these unintentional insider threats can leave an organization vulnerable to an attack. This type of negligence is the most common cost to an organization. Unfortunately, due to the varied nature of circumstances and actors involved, these types of threats also cannot be completely prevented. Organizations can, however, work to successfully minimize accidents and mitigate threats by implementing better cybersecurity training and awareness. Examples of these unintentional insider threats include “pawns” and “goofs”:


These are usually the company’s employees who have been manipulated and are unaware that they are performing malicious activities. They are a vulnerable group as attackers often target them through social engineering scams or phishing campaigns. Hackers will bait people in this group into downloading malware or disclosing confidential information that grants access to the organization. These people fall under unintentional insiders.


The people in the group are simply oblivious or choose to be ignorant of existing cybersecurity policies. These people believe that they are exempt from those safety policies and actively bypass them. This category of insider threats will leave data and resources vulnerable and give attackers easy access.

Other Forms of Insider Threats

Collusive Threats

A collusive threat is technically a malicious insider threat. These involve collusion where more than one insider collaborated with external threat actors to compromise a specific company. Insiders involved in a collusive threat are commonly acting purely for personal gain and receiving financial compensation for their help. These incidents involve hackers recruiting insiders, espionage, and intellectual property theft.

Third-Party Threats

A third-party threat involves a business partner or contractor that can compromise a company's security. They are not official members of the organization. However, they have been given access to the company's facilities, systems, networks, information, and people to finish their work. Third-party threats can be direct or indirect. Direct threats are individuals who actively compromise the organization. Indirect threats are caused by flaws in their security systems, exposing resources.

How to Spot an Insider Threat

There are anomalous activities in a network that could indicate an insider threat. Examples of this include activity at unusual times, excessively high or low volumes of traffic, and unfamiliar types of activity. Organizations should monitor the activities that attackers use to access systems. This enables them to identify an attack quickly and take appropriate action to mitigate it.

Organizations can also analyze the following commonly used tactics as insider threat indicators:

  • Attackers and hackers commonly find backdoors into systems to get access to data.
  • The use of remote access software to enable remote access.
  • The changing of user passwords to access resources that the user can.
  • The use of malware or installation of unauthorized software, which can be a Trojan horse virus and contain hidden malware.
  • Multiple attempts to access servers or devices with sensitive data.

Several warning signs in individual behavior can also point to an insider threat:

  • Changes in behavior from an employee or a partner
  • High amounts of stress
  • Multiple attempts to bypass security
  • Frequently being in the office during off-hours
  • Displays of disgruntled behavior
  • Violation of corporate policies

How Can Organizations Prevent Insider Threats?

Insider threats can be costly and carry heavy consequences for any organization. Unauthorized access to sensitive data, information, and systems can have serious consequences. It can lead to reputational damage, loss of business and partnerships. In extreme cases, organizations may even be subject to fines and legal action.

Each type of insider threat presents different symptoms for security teams to diagnose. As such, there are several options for an organization to deploy to prevent an insider threat. These include constantly monitoring user activity, evaluating real-time insights, and taking swift action when an incident occurs. The right solution will depend on the type of insider threat presented and a mix of comprehensive approaches. The following are a few examples:

Increasing Network Visibility

The cyber security team of an organization should deploy solutions. This will allow them to monitor employee actions. Additionally, they will gain extra visibility into any actions taken. Suspicious activity can be identified quickly. This gives cybersecurity teams the ability to confirm the threat and take action to prevent a data breach. They can deploy solutions in time to block any intruder.

Healthy Cybersecurity

Data loss prevention can only be achieved with advanced cybersecurity. Outdated systems are extremely vulnerable to attacks as they can provide a backdoor into the rest of a company’s systems. Weak cybersecurity also leaves your company vulnerable to system failure. As technology continues to evolve, software begins to have a shorter life cycle. This means that modern malware can easily break through your defense systems.

Always update the software used by your organization and invest in proper cyber hygiene training to protect your company against threats.

Protecting Critical Assets

Critical assets - such as facilities, people, intellectual property, and customer data - need to always be protected. Individuals who work with critical data should be vetted by the company. They should also be granted appropriate access rights and privileges. Organizations should identify what their critical assets are to prioritize them and determine the threats they would attract.

Cybersecurity Awareness

Negligent behavior is the most costly and common type of insider threat for any organization. To prevent this, the first step is to educate your employees. Cybersecurity training and awareness programs will help employees to prevent data breaches.

These initiatives protect your staff from cyber threats such as phishing and social engineering. This protection extends beyond the workplace to their personal lives. Organizations should strive to create a cybersecurity-aware culture. In this way, employees can act as the first line of defense against any attack.

Frequent Audits

Understanding who has access to your networks and information flow is vital to keeping your company safe. This includes analyzing a company’s external partners, suppliers, or vendors too. Audits help an organization identify and address weaknesses or gaps. For example, an organization could have forgotten to remove a partner from accessing their data after the termination of the partnership, which may cause the potential insider threats. This is a risk for the company as that partner will have authorized access and could potentially leak sensitive information.

Minimize the Risk of Insider Threats with Sangfor

Insider threats can be hard to spot. Without the right solutions, they can remain undetected for long periods, such as weeks, months, or even years.

Sangfor provides tailored solutions to actively detect, prevent, and address various types of insider threats. These solutions are comprehensive and can be adjusted to meet specific needs. Sangfor provides an AI-powered detection engine, a secure web gateway for network micro-segmentation, and a next-generation firewall. Learn more about all our cybersecurity solutions here.

Make your IT infrastructure simpler and more secure while ensuring protection from insider threats.


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