Insider threat

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An insider threat is a malicious threat to an organization that comes from people within the organization, such as employees, former employees, contractors or business associates, who have inside information concerning the organization's security practices, data and computer systems. The threat may involve fraud, the theft of confidential or commercially valuable information, the theft of intellectual property, or the sabotage of computer systems. The insider threat comes in three categories:

  • Malicious insiders, which are people who take advantage of their access to inflict harm on an organization;
  • Negligent insiders, which are people who make errors and disregard policies, which place their organizations at risk; and
  • Infiltrators, who are external actors that obtain legitimate access credentials without authorization.


Insiders may have accounts giving them legitimate access to computer systems, with this access originally having been given to them to serve in the performance of their duties; these permissions could be abused to harm the organization. Insiders are often familiar with the organization's data and intellectual property as well as the methods that are in place to protect them. This makes it easier for the insider to circumvent any security controls of which they are aware. Physical proximity to data means that the insider does not need to hack into the organizational network through the outer perimeter by traversing firewalls; rather they are in the building already, often with direct access to the organization's internal network. Insider threats are harder to defend against than attacks from outsiders, since the insider already has legitimate access to the organization's information and assets.[1]

An insider may attempt to steal property or information for personal gain or to benefit another organization or country.[1] The threat to the organization could also be through malicious software left running on its computer systems by former employees, a so-called logic bomb.

Research centers[edit]

Insider threat is an active area of research in academia and government.

The CERT Coordination Center at Carnegie-Mellon University maintains the CERT Insider Threat Center, which includes a database of more than 850 cases of insider threats, including instances of fraud, theft and sabotage; the database is used for research and analysis.[2] CERT's Insider Threat Team also maintains an informational blog to help organizations and businesses defend themselves against insider crime.[3]

Research findings and Criticisms[edit]

According to analysis of their data, 90% of all breaches reported to the UK Information Commissioners Office (ICO) in 2019 were the result of mistakes made by end users. This was up from 61% and 87% over the previous two years.[4]

A 2018 whitepaper,[5] reported that 53% of companies surveyed had confirmed insider attacks against their organization in the previous 12 months, with 27% saying insider attacks have become more frequent.

A report published in July 2012 on the insider threat in the U.S. financial sector[6] gives some statistics on insider threat incidents: 80% of the malicious acts were committed at work during working hours; 81% of the perpetrators planned their actions beforehand; 33% of the perpetrators were described as "difficult" and 17% as being "disgruntled". The insider was identified in 74% of cases. Financial gain was a motive in 81% of cases, revenge in 23% of cases, and 27% of the people carrying out malicious acts were in financial difficulties at the time.

The US Department of Defense Personnel Security Research Center published a report[7] that describes approaches for detecting insider threats. Earlier it published ten case studies of insider attacks by information technology professionals.[8]

Insider threat research has been criticized.[9] Schoenher and Thommson raise a number of issues with the research program. Following from previous studies arguing that insider threat is a poorly defined concept,[10] they argue that: data supporting insider threat is generally proprietary (i.e., encrypted data); and that models of insider threat are often based on loose interpretations of research in the behavioral and social sciences, using "deductive principles and intuitions of subject matter expert." Schoenherr [11] has gone on to argue that "surveillance requires an understanding of how sanctioning systems are framed, how employees will respond to surveillance, what workplace norms are deemed relevant, and what ‘deviance’ means, e.g., deviation for a justified organization norm or failure to conform to an organizational norm that conflicts with general social values." By treating all employees as potential insider threats, organizations might create conditions that create insider threats.

Forensically investigating insider data theft is notoriously difficult, and requires novel techniques such as stochastic forensics.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "FBI Counterintelligence: The Insider Threat. An introduction to detecting and deterring an insider spy". Archived from the original on 2014-02-10. Retrieved 2014-03-08.
  2. ^ "The CERT Insider Threat Center". Retrieved 2014-03-08.
  3. ^ "Insider Threat Blog". CERT. Retrieved 10 August 2012.
  4. ^ "The fight for your data: mitigating ransomware and insider threats". Information Age. 2021-05-10. Retrieved 2021-06-20.
  5. ^ "Insider Threat 2018 Report". Cybersecurity Insiders. Retrieved 2018-12-13.
  6. ^ Cummings, Adam; Lewellen, Todd; McIntire, David; Moore, Andrew; Trzeciak, Randall (2012), Insider Threat Study: Illicit Cyber Activity Involving Fraud in the U.S. Financial Services Sector, Software Engineering Institute, Carnegie Mellon University, (CMU/SEI-2012-SR-004)
  7. ^ Shaw, Eric; Fischer, Lynn; Rose, Andrée (2009), Insider Risk Evaluation and Audit (PDF), Department of Defense Personnel Security Research Center, TR 09-02
  8. ^ Shaw, Eric; Fischer, Lynn (2005), Ten Tales of Betrayal: The Threat to Corporate Infrastructures by Information Technology Insiders Analysis and Observations (PDF), archived from the original (PDF) on 2012-10-14, retrieved 2013-03-18
  9. ^ Schoenherr, Jordan; Thommson; Robert (2020), "Insider Threat Detection: A Solution in Search of a Problem", 2020 International Conference on Cyber Security and Protection of Digital Services (Cyber Security), 2020 International Conference on Cyber Security and Protection of Digital Services (Cyber Security), pp. 1–7, doi:10.1109/CyberSecurity49315.2020.9138862, ISBN 978-1-7281-6428-1, S2CID 220606121
  10. ^ Coles-Kemp, Lizzie; Theoharidou, Marianthi (2010), Insider threat and information security management. In Insider threats in cyber security (pp. 45-71)., Springer, Boston
  11. ^ Schoenherr, Jordan (2020), Understanding Surveillance Societies: Social Cognition and the Adoption of Surveillance Technologies, IEEE ISTAS 2020

External links[edit]