Strategies for addressing insider security threats

Executive stakeholders are well aware of the numerous data security risks that come along with operating an organization in today's connected society. Of course, for most of these business leaders, the mysterious hacker embodies these concerns – a shadowy figure secretly searching company servers for privileged information ripe for sale in the dark recesses of the internet. This imagery has some basis in reality, as external cyberattacks are ubiquitous these days. However, it fails to capture another nefarious character capable of wreaking just as much havoc, without the programming heroics: the insider threat.

These individuals orchestrated an estimated 25 percent of the data breaches that occurred last year, according to research from Verizon Wireless. How? In most cases, internal actors leverage legitimate credentials to explore backend systems unrelated to their job duties, scouring these platforms for sellable information. This was the motivation behind roughly 60 percent of the insider attacks that unfolded in 2016, analysts for Verizon discovered. Sometimes these disruptors have different objectives. For instance, around 15 percent of embedded attackers mined enterprise data stores as they departed for competing firms.

Whatever their motivation, insiders can do significant damage to mission-critical information technology infrastructure and cause instances of costly data loss. With this in mind, businesses must develop and deploy digital defenses and data security policies to address these individuals and reduce their destructive impact. Luckily, there are industry-standard strategies that leading firms employ with great success. Here are some of those methods for addressing insider data security threats:

Officially address insiders
Many companies draft enterprise data security policies with outside actors in mind, including extensive rules for email management, password creation and other key processes. Unfortunately, insider threats are often left unadressed in these company missives. This is an obvious mistake, according to TechTarget. IT personnel and other stakeholders involved in creating data security policy must include explicit language addressing topics such as system misuse and improper information distribution. Of course, these policies should also spell out the punishment for these deeds. That said, the language here should be nuanced so as to separate intentional actions from accidental ones.

"Inside actors orchestrated an estimated 25 percent of the data breaches that occurred last year."

In addition to addressing outright insider activity, data security policies must cover ancillary processes such as incident-handling workflows. In this example, the IT team would be able to bypass system administrators in the event that internal information is compromised. Why? The individuals with these top-level credentials could be culprits themselves.

Understand end users
Simply gaining an understanding of the end-user population can make it easier to head off possible insider activity, Harvard Business Review reported. The motivations behind nefarious internal action are often personal, meaning organizations that can effectively evaluate key users may be able to mitigate major security risks via some simple questions, vetted by human resources and legal representatives, of course. It's best to focus on individuals with high-levels of system access as they could cause the most damage if moved to do so. IT teams should also apply vetting procedures to executives – while they might not employ internal systems regularly, they could, theoretically, use their clout to pressure others to do their data-based bidding.

On top of evaluating end users on company grounds, internal security specialists must address external partners with system access. While third-party-related breaches are rare – they accounted for only 2 percent of incidents recorded in 2016, according to Verizon – IT teams must not overlook them.

Modernize legacy systems
Bolstering policies and IT procedures can make a significant impact when it comes to addressing insider threats. However, these changes simply are not enough. Companies must also prepare their backend systems for the possible onslaught of internal and external threats, Security Magazine reported. How? IT modernization. The rise of big data has brought to the fore advanced data security systems that can track user activity and alert trusted administrators when those inside the system seem to abusing their privileges.

In addition to implementing these solutions, organizations must re-evaluate their physical security features and look for onsite gaps that might enable internal actors hunting for information. For those with on-premises processing equipment, this might mean swapping in-office servers for cloud services, which usually come with ample digital and physical protections.   

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