Insider Threat

Updated on January 5, 2024
Article byKumar Rahul
Edited byAshish Kumar Srivastav
Reviewed byDheeraj Vaidya, CFA, FRM

What Is An Insider Threat?

An insider threat is a type of security risk from an organization, such as employees, contractors, or business partners, who have authorized access to sensitive information, systems, or networks. It aims to steal confidential information or intellectual property of the organization.

Insider Threat

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It aims to sabotage systems or networks. This can occur when individuals intentionally or unintentionally cause harm to an organization. It is done to usually to take personal revenge against the organization with apolitical or ideological motivation. It can have severe consequences for an organization, including financial losses, reputational damage, legal matters, and loss of crucial information.

Key Takeaways

  • Insider threats are a significant risk to organizations and can result in serious harm, including loss of vital information, damage to systems, and financial loss.
  • It can originate from employees, contractors, vendors, or other insiders with authorized access to sensitive information and systems.
  • It can act maliciously, accidentally, or under the influence of a third party and may have personal or financial motivations for causing harm to the organization.

Insider Threat Explained

An insider threat consists of a series of steps a potential attacker may take to carry out their malicious activities. It is a complex process that involves multiple stages, from initial access to cover-up:

  1. Initial Access: An insider gains authorized access to crucial information, systems, or networks through their job function or privileged access.
  2. Discovery: The insider locates and identifies essential information they can use for malicious purposes.
  3. Escalation of Privilege: The insider seeks to increase their access privileges to information, systems, or networks to gain more control and power.
  4. Collection: The insider gathers information, such as confidential data, trade secrets, or financial information, and saves it to a device or cloud storage.
  5. Exfiltration: The insider transfers information out of the organization by physically removing it or through a digital transfer.
  6. Exploitation: The insider uses such information for malicious purposes, such as financial gain, intellectual property theft, or sabotage.
  7. Cover-Up: The insider takes steps to conceal their activities, such as deleting logs or hiding their tracks.

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Indicators of insider threat programs can include a combination of behavioral, technical, and situational warning signs that may indicate that an individual is acting maliciously or poses a security risk to an organization. Some common indicators include:

  1. Unusual access patterns: An insider accessing sensitive information outside their normal job function or accessing information they do not need for their work.
  2. Personal stress or financial problems: Individuals facing personal or financial pressure may be more likely to engage in malicious activities.
  3. Unusual use of technology: An insider uses encryption, virtual private networks (VPNs), or other tools to hide their activities.
  4. Resignation or termination: An insider leaving the organization and attempting to take sensitive information.
  5. Policy violations: An individual violating security policies, such as sharing passwords or accessing restricted systems.
  6. System anomalies: An insider causing unusual system activity, such as unexpected network traffic spikes or unique system configuration modifications.
  7. Suspicious email or file transfers: An insider sending large volumes of confidential information outside the organization or using personal email or cloud storage services.


Insider threats can be classified into several types based on the motives and methods of the attackers:

  1. Malicious Insiders: This type of threat involves individuals who intentionally cause harm to an organization, such as theft of sensitive information, intellectual property, or sabotage of systems.
  2. Accidental Insiders: This type of threat involves individuals who unintentionally cause harm to an organization, such as through a data breach or system failure.
  3. Compromised Insiders: This threat involves individuals whose accounts or devices have been hacked, allowing attackers to gain unauthorized access to such information.
  4. Third-Party Insiders: This threat involves individuals affiliated with a vendor, contractor, or business partner with authorized access to sensitive information and systems.
  5. Insider-External Collaboration: This threat involves insiders collaborating with external attackers to commit malicious acts.


Let us understand it through the following examples.

Example #1

Suppose a mid-level employee named John at a large financial institution is facing financial difficulties and is struggling to pay his bills. He notices that his company stores clients’ sensitive financial information on its servers, including their names, addresses, Social Security numbers, and bank account numbers. John realizes he can use this information to commit identity theft and fraud.

John starts to collect this information by using his authorized access to the company’s systems and saves it on a USB drive. He also uses encryption tools to hide his tracks and cover his activities. John then transfers the information to a personal email account and plans to sell it on the dark web.

The company’s security team became suspicious of John’s activities after noticing unusual access patterns and increased network traffic from his workstation. They launch an investigation and find the encrypted files on John’s workstation and the email transfers to his account. The company promptly terminates John’s employment and alerts the relevant authorities to take legal action.

Example #2

One real-life example of an insider threat is the Edward Snowden case.

Edward Snowden was a former National Security Agency contractor and system administrator. As a result, he had vast access to classified information about the NSA’s global surveillance programs. In 2013, Snowden leaked thousands of classified documents to journalists, which revealed the extent of the NSA’s surveillance activities and sparked a worldwide debate about privacy and government surveillance.

Snowden’s actions were a clear example of an intentional and malicious insider threat, as he intentionally disclosed information he had access to as part of his job. His actions also compromised national security and damaged the reputation of the NSA and the United States government.

The Snowden case highlights the importance of strong security measures to prevent such threats as access controls, monitoring, and incident response plans. It also highlights the need for organizations to continuously assess and improve their security posture to protect against the risk posed by insiders.


Preventing insider threats requires a multi-layered approach that includes the following steps:

  1. Awareness and training: Providing regular training and insider threat awareness programs for employees on the risks and consequences of such threats and the appropriate use of information and technology.
  2. Access controls: Implementing strong access controls and authentication mechanisms to prevent unauthorized access to information and systems.
  3. Monitoring and detection: Insider threat detection involves monitoring employees’ behavior and system activity to detect suspicious or unusual behavior that may indicate it.
  4. Incident response: Having a well-defined and tested incident response plan to respond to and quickly contain such incidents.
  5. Background checks: Conduct thorough background checks on employees and third-party contractors with access to systems.
  6. Data protection: Implementing data protection measures, such as encryption and data classification, to prevent unauthorized access and theft of information.
  7. Continuous assessment: Continuously assessing and improving the organization’s security posture to stay ahead of evolving such risks.

Insider Threat vs Outsider Threat

Insider and outsider threats are two distinct types of security risks that organizations face. Here are some key differences:

Insider Threats

  1. Originate from the organization, such as employees, contractors, or third-party vendors.
  2. Employees have authorized access to sensitive information and systems.
  3. They may act maliciously, accidentally, or under the influence of a third party.
  4. They may have a personal or financial motivation for causing harm to the organization.
  5. Often harder to detect due to their authorized access and familiarity with the organization’s systems and processes.

Outsider Threats

  1. Originate from outside the organization, such as hackers, cybercriminals, or state-sponsored actors.
  2. It attempts to gain unauthorized access to vital information and systems.
  3. They may act with malicious intent, such as to steal information or launch a cybersecurity insider threat.
  4. They are motivated by financial gain, political objectives, or a desire to cause harm.
  5. It is often easier to detect due to their lack of authorized access and unfamiliarity with the organization’s systems and processes.

Insider Risk vs Insider Threat

Insider risk refers to the broader concept of risk posed by insiders, while insider threat refers to the specific type of risk that involves intentional and malicious actions.

The critical differences between the two concepts in bullet points:

Insider Risk

  1. It refers to the potential for harm to an organization caused by the actions of an insider, intentional or accidental.
  2. It covers all insider risks, including malicious and non-malicious behaviors.
  3. It can result from various activities, including unintentional data breaches, inappropriate use of systems, or violations of policies and procedures.
  4. It is a broader concept that encompasses all potential risks insiders pose.

Insider Threat

  1. It refers specifically to intentional and malicious actions by an insider to cause harm to an organization.
  2. It involves stealing prime information, sabotaging systems, or other activities designed to cause damage.
  3. It is a subset of insider risk and only refers to the specific type of risk that involves malicious actions.
  4. It is a focused concept that refers to intentional and adverse actions taken by insiders.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1. What is an insider threat in cyber security?

An insider threat in cyber security refers to the risk posed to an organization by individuals with authorized access to its systems and delicate information, who intentionally or accidentally misuse that access to cause harm.

2. Why is it essential to identify potential insider threats?

Organizations can mitigate the risk of harm by identifying it and protecting their critical information and systems. This may involve implementing security measures such as access controls, monitoring, and employee training and awareness.

3. What is an elicitation insider threat?

Elicitation is an internal threat in which an attacker tries to extract information from an insider through social engineering or other means. For example, the attacker may use phishing, baiting, or pretexting tactics to trick the insider into revealing confidential information or encourage them to take actions that compromise the organization’s security.

This article has been a guide to what is an Insider Threat. Here, we explain its indicators, examples, types, prevention, and comparison with outsider threats. You may also find some useful articles here –