What Is an Insider Threat?

3 min. read

An insider threat describes cybersecurity risk associated with malicious behavior by people within an organization. The common scenario is an employee, former employee, or contractor who misuses their access to sensitive information or privileged resources to exfiltrate data.

Insider threats can be difficult to identify and prevent because they’re often invisible to traditional security measures, as they may exploit authorized logins. Insider threats stem from individuals with authorized access or knowledge of an organization's resources — including information systems, networks, credentials, and cloud accounts.

To mitigate insider threats, organizations need effective security measures, including access controls, user behavior analytics, and data detection and response (DDR). Regular security awareness training for employees also reduces the risk of accidental data breaches.

Insider Threat Explained

An insider threat occurs when individuals with authorized access to an organization's resources, such as employees or third-party contractors, intentionally or unintentionally misuse their privileges to compromise data, systems, or the organization's security. Insider threats can result from various motivations, including financial gain, revenge, espionage, or simple human error.

Insider threats materialize through actions such as unauthorized data access, sharing confidential information with unauthorized parties, or installing malicious software. These threats are particularly challenging to detect and mitigate because they originate from individuals who already have legitimate access to the organization's resources.

Three Types of Insider Threats

Malicious Insiders

Malicious insiders are individuals within an organization who abuse their access to systems, networks, or data to cause harm or exploit the organization's resources. These individuals may be motivated by financial gain, personal grievances, or ideological reasons. Malicious insiders can execute various attacks, such as stealing sensitive data, sabotaging systems, or installing malware.

To mitigate the risks posed by malicious insiders, organizations should implement strict access controls, perform regular security audits, and monitor user behavior to detect anomalies. Employee background checks, along with ongoing security awareness training, can also help reduce the likelihood of malicious insider threats.

Careless Insiders

Careless insiders are individuals within an organization who unintentionally cause security incidents or expose sensitive information due to negligence or a lack of awareness. Common examples of careless insider actions include falling victim to phishing attacks, misconfiguring security settings, or inadvertently sharing confidential data with unauthorized parties.

Addressing the risks associated with careless insiders requires a strong focus on security education and training, which helps raise awareness of potential threats and best practices. Additionally, implementing clear security policies and employing technical controls, such as data loss prevention tools and automated security checks, can help minimize the impact of human error.


Moles are individuals who infiltrate an organization with the intent of stealing sensitive information, disrupting operations, or otherwise causing harm from within. Moles may be employed by competitors, nation-state actors, or criminal organizations and typically have malicious intent. They gain access to the organization through employment, contracting, or other legitimate means, then use their position to carry out their objectives.

Detecting and preventing moles requires a combination of pre-employment screening, continuous monitoring of user behavior, and strict access controls. Regular security audits and anomaly detection techniques can help identify potential moles and mitigate the risks they pose to the organization.

Privileged Users & Insider Risks

Privileged users, individuals within an organization who have elevated access rights to critical systems, applications, and data might include system administrators, network engineers, and database administrators. These users possess the authority to manage and configure systems, install software, and grant or revoke access permissions for other users.

But privileged users can pose a significant risk to an organization's security if their accounts are compromised or misused. Attackers often target privileged accounts to gain unauthorized access to sensitive data, deploy malware, or disrupt operations. It’s also not uncommon for privileged users to become insider threats. In fact, every insider risk can manifest into an insider threat.

The potential for security breaches or data loss within an organization resulting from the actions of employees, contractors, or other individuals with authorized access to systems, networks, and sensitive information is ever present. Insider risks can be intentional, as in the case of malicious employees seeking financial gain or revenge, or unintentional, as in the case of human error or negligence.

Insider risks materialize through unauthorized data access, sharing sensitive information with unauthorized parties, and installing malware. Addressing insider risks requires a combination of technical and human-centric approaches, such as implementing access controls according to the principle of least privilege, using multifactor authentication for privileged accounts, and establishing security policies for password management, data classification, and incident response. Organizations should regularly review and update their security policies to address emerging threats. To be effective, policies must be well-documented, communicated, and enforced throughout the organization.

Employee Monitoring

Employee monitoring refers to the practice of observing and analyzing employee activities, communications, and behavior within an organization to ensure compliance with policies, maintain productivity, and protect sensitive data. Employee monitoring can encompass various methods, such as reviewing email correspondence, monitoring internet usage, tracking application usage, and analyzing user behavior patterns.

Organizations implement employee monitoring to identify potential security risks, detect insider threats, and maintain a secure work environment. It’s advisable, however, to balance employee privacy concerns with the organization's security needs. Transparent communication about monitoring policies and practices, as well as adherence to relevant privacy regulations, is essential to maintain employee trust and avoid potential legal issues.

Data Detection and Response (DDR)

Data detection and response (DDR) combats insider threats by detecting changes in the cloud data security landscape as they happen, identifying risky behaviors and exfiltration attempts.

With DDR, cloud logs are analyzed in real-time, monitoring changes to detect data risks as they occur. Changes such as data moving from encrypted to unencrypted space or data flowing into physical spaces that would cause data sovereignty issues are rapidly detected. Using an advanced threat model, these behaviors are assessed for potential risk, differentiating appropriate utilization of permissions from high-risk behaviors such as data exfiltration.

While data security posture management (DSPM) is a more static variety of data risk assessment, DDR provides the dynamic portion to ensure that data remains protected at all times. Without both components in use, organizations only have a partial view of their data landscape at any given time, limiting their ability to manage their data risks.

Insider Threat FAQs

User activity encompasses all actions performed by users within an organization's systems, networks, and applications. This includes actions such as logging in and out, accessing files, sending emails, and using software tools. Monitoring and analyzing user activity is essential for identifying potential security threats, ensuring compliance with security policies, and maintaining overall system integrity.

User activity monitoring can help detect unusual behavior patterns that may indicate insider threats, compromised accounts, or unauthorized access attempts. By collecting, analyzing, and correlating user activity data, security teams can identify potential risks, investigate incidents, and respond to threats in a timely manner. Regular reviews of user activity logs and the implementation of automated alerting systems can further enhance an organization's security posture.

Threat detection is the process of identifying, analyzing, and responding to potential security threats within an organization's systems, networks, and data. This involves continuously monitoring and analyzing security events to detect indicators of compromise, such as unauthorized access attempts, malware infections, or abnormal user behavior.

Threat detection techniques can include signature-based detection, which relies on matching known patterns of malicious activity, and behavior-based detection, which identifies threats based on deviations from established baselines of normal activity. Advanced threat detection solutions may leverage machine learning and artificial intelligence to adapt to evolving threats and improve detection accuracy.

Effective threat detection requires the integration of various security tools, such as intrusion detection and prevention systems, endpoint protection solutions, and user behavior analytics. A robust threat detection strategy enables organizations to respond quickly to potential security incidents, minimizing the potential damage and disruption caused by cyberattacks.

Compromised credentials refer to the unauthorized access or acquisition of a user's login information, such as usernames and passwords, by malicious actors. When an attacker obtains a user's credentials, they can gain unauthorized access to systems, networks, and sensitive data, potentially causing significant harm to the organization.

Credentials can become compromised through various means, including phishing attacks, social engineering, data breaches, or brute force attacks. Once an attacker has access to a user's credentials, they can impersonate the legitimate user, making it challenging for security systems to detect the unauthorized activity.

To protect against compromised credentials, organizations should enforce strong authentication mechanisms, such as multi-factor authentication, and educate users about the importance of password security and the risks of phishing attacks. Regularly monitoring user activity and implementing anomaly detection can also help identify potential compromises and facilitate a swift response to mitigate risks.

Data leakage refers to the unauthorized exposure or transfer of sensitive information from an organization to external parties or unsecured locations. Data leakage can occur through various channels, such as email, cloud storage, removable media devices, or even physical theft of devices containing sensitive data.

Data leakage often happens due to inadequate security measures, misconfigurations, or employee negligence. For example, sensitive data may be inadvertently sent to the wrong recipient via email or uploaded to an unsecured cloud storage service.

To prevent data leakage, organizations should implement strict access controls, data classification policies, and encryption for data at rest and in transit. Regular security audits and employee training are also essential to identify and remediate potential vulnerabilities in the organization's data security practices.

Unauthorized access occurs when an attacker gains entry to an organization's systems, networks, or data without the necessary permissions. Unauthorized access can result from various attack vectors, including weak or stolen credentials, social engineering, and software vulnerabilities.

Attackers often seek unauthorized access to obtain sensitive data, disrupt operations, or install malicious software for further exploitation. Unauthorized access can lead to significant financial losses, reputational damage, and legal consequences for the affected organization.

To mitigate the risk of unauthorized access, organizations should enforce strong authentication mechanisms, such as multifactor authentication, and regularly update and patch software to address known vulnerabilities. Additionally, implementing intrusion detection and prevention systems, along with continuous monitoring and logging of user activities, can help detect and respond to unauthorized access attempts promptly.

User behavior analytics (UBA) is an advanced security technique that leverages machine learning and statistical analysis to identify anomalous behavior patterns within an organization's network. By analyzing user activities, such as login times, application usage, and data access, UBA can establish a baseline of normal behavior for each user and detect deviations that may indicate potential security threats.

UBA is particularly useful for identifying insider threats, compromised accounts, and unauthorized access attempts. When the system detects abnormal behavior, it can trigger alerts or automated responses, enabling security teams to investigate and remediate potential threats promptly.

To implement user behavior analytics effectively, organizations should integrate UBA tools with existing security systems, such as intrusion detection and prevention systems, and maintain comprehensive logs of user activities for analysis.

Access control is a fundamental security principle that governs the authorization and authentication of users, devices, and applications within an organization's systems, networks, and data. Access control mechanisms ensure that only authorized individuals have access to specific resources and that they are granted the appropriate permissions to perform their job responsibilities.

Access control can be implemented using various models, such as Role-Based Access Control (RBAC), Discretionary Access Control (DAC), and Mandatory Access Control (MAC). These models define how permissions are assigned, managed, and enforced within the organization.

Effective access control requires the implementation of strong authentication methods, such as multi-factor authentication, and the regular review and adjustment of user permissions to adhere to the principle of least privilege. Additionally, logging and monitoring access events can help detect unauthorized access attempts and potential security threats.