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What are insider threats and how do you prevent them?

Read our guide to understand what you need to know about insider threats, why they’re dangerous & how to identify, respond to & prevent them.

insider threat

Sometimes, those closest to the organization can do the most harm, whether they intend to or not. Insider threats, be it employees, contractors, or business partners, are a persistent and often underestimated cybersecurity challenge.

From unintentional security lapses to deliberate acts of sabotage, insider threats can manifest in various forms. In this blog, we’ll explore:

  • What is an insider threat?
  • Different types of insider threats and their differences
  • Why are they threats and how dangerous can they be?
  • Causes and risk factors
  • Real-life examples of insider threats
  • How to recognize insider threats
  • Insider threat detection
  • How to respond to and recover from insider threats
  • How to prevent and manage insider threats
  • FAQs 
  • Future trends of insider threats 

What is an insider threat?

An insider threat refers to the potential risk posed by individuals within an organization. Insider threats can be employees, contractors, or business partners – practically anyone who has access to the organization’s systems, data, or assets.

They may intentionally or unintentionally misuse that access to disrupt organizational operations or compromise the security, integrity, or confidentiality of information.

Insider threats can manifest in various forms, including data breaches, data theft, espionage, fraud, sabotage, or the dissemination of sensitive information to unauthorized parties. These threats can result from malicious intent, negligence, lack of awareness, or inadvertent actions by trusted insiders.

Insider threats are challenging to detect and prevent due to their intimate knowledge of the organization’s systems and processes. Mitigating insider threats typically involves a combination of cybersecurity measures, employee training, monitoring, and incident response strategies

Different types of insider threats and their differences

Every insider threat will have different motivations and behaviors; organizations must be aware of these distinctions if they want to adopt a layered security approach. Here are different types of insider threats: 

Malicious insiders

These individuals intentionally seek to harm the organization. They may have personal grievances, financial motives, or malicious intent, often engaging in activities such as data theft, sabotage, or espionage.

Careless insiders 

Careless insiders are employees who inadvertently compromise security due to negligence or lack of cybersecurity awareness. Their actions may include clicking on phishing emails, altering security settings, or mishandling sensitive data.


Moles are insiders recruited by external threat actors to work as double agents within the organization. They gain trust and access over time, ultimately aiding in cyberattacks or data breaches.


Pawns are unwitting insiders who are manipulated or coerced into aiding threat actors without realizing it. They may unknowingly provide access or information to malicious actors.

Second streamers

These individuals work within the organization but engage in malicious activities outside their primary responsibilities. They might use their insider access to carry out unauthorized actions.

Disgruntled employees

Employees who are dissatisfied with their organization or have workplace grievances may become insider threats. They may engage in revenge-driven activities that harm the organization.

Persistent non-responders

These insiders consistently disregard security policies and protocols, often due to apathy or indifference. Their behavior poses ongoing risks to the organization.

Why are they threats and how dangerous can they be?

Insider threats are dangerous because they often have authorized access to an organization’s systems and data, making it easier for them to evade traditional security measures. Potential risks include:

  • Access to sensitive information: can access sensitive data, trade secrets, customer information, and intellectual property, putting these assets at risk.
  • Reduced detection: knowledge of the organization’s security measures, allowing them to evade detection or go unnoticed for extended periods.
  • Trust and privileges: trusted employees often have higher levels of access and privileges within the organization, which can be exploited for malicious purposes.
  • Knowledge of systems: intimate understanding of the organization’s systems, making it easier for them to identify vulnerabilities and weaknesses.
  • A blend of intention: insider threats can range from purely malicious to unintentional, making them particularly challenging to detect and mitigate.
  • Cost and repercussions: can result in substantial financial losses, damage to the organization’s reputation, legal consequences, and operational disruptions.
  • Emotional factors: disgruntled or emotionally affected insiders may engage in harmful activities driven by personal grievances, making their actions unpredictable.
  • Complex detection: often require sophisticated detection methods because their activities may resemble legitimate actions. 
  • Insider collaboration: in some cases, multiple insiders may collaborate to carry out an attack, further complicating detection efforts.
  • Lengthy dwell time: insider threats can persist within an organization for a long time, allowing them to gather information or conduct espionage over an extended period.

Causes and risk factors of insider threats

Insider threats can be intentional or unintentional and, given the level of access insiders have, identifying a potential threat is challenging. Here are the causes and risk factors associated with insider threats:

Disgruntled employees

Employees who feel mistreated or undervalued may seek revenge or intentionally harm the organization. They may misuse their access to steal or damage information and disrupt operations. 

Careless behavior 

Inadvertent insider threats arise from employees’ unintentional actions, such as mishandling data or falling for phishing attacks. Their carelessness can lead to data breaches or security incidents. 

Lack of awareness and training 

Insufficient training can result in unintentional data disclosure or risky online behavior as employees are more likely to make security-related mistakes and fall victim to social engineering tactics.

Insider trading or fraud 

In financial organizations, insiders may engage in illegal activities, such as insider trading or financial fraud. Such activities can lead to financial losses for the organization and legal repercussions.

Inadequate access controls 

Weak access controls and mismanaged permissions can grant insiders excessive access to sensitive data and systems. Employees with overextended privileges may misuse them, potentially leading to data breaches or unauthorized activities.

Insider collaboration with external threat actors 

Insiders may collaborate with external threat actors, combining insider knowledge with external resources to carry out sophisticated attacks. This alliance can pose a significant threat, making detection and mitigation challenging.

Third-party vendors and contractors 

Organizations often provide third-party vendors and contractors with system access. If not adequately vetted or supervised, third-party actors can misuse their access, becoming insider threats.

Personal financial strain 

Employees facing financial difficulties may succumb to bribes or financial incentives offered by external threat actors. They could steal or sell company data for personal gain. 

Remote work and BYOD policies 

The adoption of remote work and BYOD policies can heighten insider threat risks. Employees may unintentionally compromise data security due to inadequate device security or insecure network connections.

Real-life example of insider threats

One notable case study of an insider threat is Edward Snowden, a former contractor for the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA). In 2013, Snowden leaked classified documents to the media, exposing extensive surveillance programs.

Edward Snowden had top-secret security clearance and he exploited this access to obtain and leak classified documents. Snowden claimed his actions were driven by a desire to expose unlawful and invasive practices and believed the public had a right to know about the extent of government surveillance.

Over several months, Snowden secretly collected and leaked a trove of classified documents to journalists. These revelations had significant implications for national security and diplomatic relations.

He faced criminal charges in the United States for theft of government property and unauthorized disclosure of classified information. As a result, he fled to Russia and remained there a decade later. 

How to recognize insider threats

Recognizing insider threats before they become a serious issue is crucial. Here are some telltale signs to look out for.

  • Unusual data access: unwarranted access to sensitive data or systems, especially outside of regular job responsibilities. 
  • Frequent security violations: consistent disregard for security protocols, such as sharing passwords or bypassing authentication measures.
  • Unauthorized software or hardware use: installation or use of unauthorized software or hardware, potentially for malicious purposes.
  • Behavioral changes: noticeable changes in an individual’s behavior, attitude, or work patterns, such as increased secrecy or withdrawal from team activities.
  • Excessive data copying or downloading: unexplained and frequent copies or downloads of files and data. 
  • Data irregularities: unexpected alterations or deletions of data without authorization or justification. 
  • Unexplained network activity: suspicious activity, such as probing systems or attempting to gain unauthorized access.
  • Unusual work times: consistently working long hours or accessing systems during non-working hours. 
  • Inconsistent work history: frequent job changes or employment gaps that raise questions about an individual’s loyalty or reliability.
  • Lack of cooperation: refusal to cooperate with security investigations or failure to report suspicious incidents.
  • Financial troubles: signs of financial stress, which could make an individual more susceptible to bribery or fraud.
  • Disgruntlement or retaliation: expressing dissatisfaction with the organization, management, or colleagues, potentially leading to revenge-driven actions.

Insider threat detection

Another way organizations can recognize potential risks is by using technology to monitor and detect potential insider threats. For example: 

User and entity behavior analytics (UEBA)

UEBA solutions analyze user behavior and system activities to identify anomalies and deviations from normal patterns. They can flag unusual activities that may indicate insider threats.

Data loss prevention (DLP) solutions

DLP tools monitor data flow within an organization and prevent unauthorized access or data leaks. They can identify and block attempts to exfiltrate sensitive data.

User Activity Monitoring (UAM) tools:

UAM tools track and log user activities on systems and networks. They can generate alerts when users engage in suspicious or unauthorized actions.

Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) systems:

SIEM systems collect and analyze log data from various sources, including network devices, servers, and applications. They can help correlate events and identify suspicious activities.

How to respond to and recover from insider threats

To recover from insider threats as swiftly as possible, you’ll need to respond swiftly. Here’s what you should do:

  1. Identify and classify: once you identify a potential threat, assess the severity and impact to determine the appropriate response level. 
  2. Isolate and contain: isolate the affected systems or data to prevent further damage. 
  3. Notify and communicate: maintain clear communication and notify relevant stakeholders such as IT, security, legal, and HR teams. 
  4. Investigate and analyze: conduct a thorough investigation and analyze the insider’s actions, motivations, and potential damages. 
  5. Preserve evidence: hold onto digital evidence to support legal or disciplinary actions. 
  6. Remediate and recover: neutralize the insider threat from the organization and restore affected systems or data to normal operations.
  7. Document the incident: document all actions taken during the incident response for future reference and compliance. 
  8. Conduct post-incident review: evaluate the response process and identify areas for improvement. 
  9. Communicate with affected parties: communicate with those affected as required by regulations.
  10. Update policies: learn from the incident and update security policies and procedures to prevent future insider threats. 
  11. Conduct employee training: implement awareness programs to educate employees about insider threat risks and prevention techniques. 
  12. Continuous monitoring: implement continuous monitoring and anomaly detection to detect and respond to future insider threats more effectively.
  13. Ongoing threat assessment: regularly assess the organization’s insider threat landscape and adapt security measures accordingly.
  14. Legal actions: if necessary, pursue legal actions against insiders who committed malicious activities.

How to prevent and manage insider threats

Preventing and managing insider threats requires a proactive approach. Here are some best practices you can follow:

  • Awareness training: regularly educate employees about security risks and how to recognize and report suspicious activities.
  • Principle of least privilege: limit user access to only what’s necessary for their roles to minimize insider threat potential.
  • Role-based access controls: assign permissions based on job roles to reduce unnecessary privileges.
  • Regular security assessments: conduct periodic audits to identify vulnerabilities and weaknesses. 
  • Multi-factor authentication (MFA): require multiple forms of authentication for access to critical systems and data.
  • Continuous monitoring and analysis: monitor user activities and network traffic for anomalies and potential threats.
  • Incident response plan for insider threats: develop a plan to respond swiftly and effectively to insider threats. 
  • Collaboration between teams: ensure a coordinated response across technology, HR, and legal teams.
  • Handling investigations and disciplinary actions: conduct investigations and take appropriate disciplinary actions.


What advantages do insider threats have over others?

Insiders have knowledge of internal systems, access to sensitive data, and the potential to blend in, making them harder to detect compared to external threats.

What is not considered an insider threat?

Individuals or entities outside the organization, such as external hackers or competitors, are not considered insider threats.

Are there any early indicators or behavior patterns?

Early indicators of insider threats may include changes in behavior, excessive access to data, or unusual data transfer activities.

What motivates an insider attack and what’s in it for them?

Insider attacks can be motivated by financial gain, revenge, ideology, or personal grudges, with attackers seeking to benefit in some way.

What distinguishes insider threats from external cyberattacks?

Insider threats originate from within an organization, involving individuals with authorized access, while external cyber attacks come from outside the organization’s network.

How can organizations balance security with employee privacy?

Organizations can balance security with employee privacy by implementing policies that respect privacy while monitoring and protecting critical assets.

What technologies can help detect and prevent insider threats?

Technologies like User and Entity Behavior Analytics (UEBA), Data Loss Prevention (DLP), and Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) help detect and prevent insider threats.

What steps can organizations take to foster a security-aware culture among employees?

Organizations can foster a security-aware culture through employee training, awareness programs, clear policies, and promoting a culture of reporting security concerns.

What are watch lists and how useful are they?

Watch lists contain individuals who are closely monitored due to their potential risk of insider threats. They can be useful for early detection but require careful management.

Future trends of insider threats

As technology advances, so do the tactics of insider threats. Here’s what the future may hold for insider threats. 

AI and machine learning 

AI and machine learning are critical for spotting insider threats. They analyze vast data to detect unusual behaviors. AI-driven behavioral analysis spots anomalies, while predictive analytics forecasts threats for early intervention.

Evolving attack techniques 

Insider threats are growing in complexity. Attackers use methods like spear phishing and social engineering. Organizations combat this through employee training and advanced email security. Zero-trust architecture is gaining traction, limiting insider impact.

Impact of remote work 

Remote work expands the attack surface. Solutions include secure remote access, strong VPNs, and privacy-conscious policies. Balancing security and user privacy is vital. Endpoint security strengthens protection against insider threats from compromised devices or insecure connections.

Final thoughts

In our digital age, data is a prized asset. The consequences of a breach can be severe, ranging from financial losses to legal liabilities, and organizations must be acutely aware of the dangers that insider threats can pose. While most insiders have no malicious intent, it only takes a single lapse in judgment or a disgruntled employee to cause significant damage.

If you want to mitigate potential risks before they escalate, consider CovertSwarm’s insider threat detection services. With continuous monitoring and advanced technology on our side, we’ll keep a constant eye on insider threats so you can focus on what truly matters – taking care of business. Have any questions? Don’t hesitate to contact us.