Identity Governance Blog

Potential Insider Threat Indicators: How to Protect Against Cyberattacks

April 19, 2023

The most effective crimes in history often rely on an inside man – a trusted person in the organization that aids the criminals. Take the Trojan Horse, for example. The deception of the Greeks was only possible because of an insider that allowed the wooden horse filled with soldiers to enter the city. Similarly, financial scams and robberies often need a person in the know to reveal valuable information or access to resources.

The same is true with cyberattacks.

Common incidents like data breaches, malware, ransomware, theft, and fraud are often a result of malicious or unknowing insider. They’re carried out by employees or administrators, whether willingly or accidentally.

The problem with insider threats is that they’re much more difficult to spot and potentially cause more damage. That’s why you need to be vigilant.

Understanding potential insider threat indicators enhances the cyber awareness of any organization. With that in mind, this article is dedicated to explaining why protection is so important and how IGA can help mitigate insider threats.


Why is Protection from Insider Threats Important?

Many organizations focus their time and effort on beefing up their cyber defenses against external threats – measures like firewalls, anti-virus software, and distributed denial of service (DDoS) protection.

However, many fail to protect themselves against threats from the inside – which is arguably the bigger danger. According to Security Magazine, over half of all organizations had an insider threat in 2022, and it costs businesses an average of $15.38 million per incident.

Furthermore, hackers are now getting more sophisticated. Most aren’t even trying to penetrate cybersecurity defenses. Instead, they’re trying to bypass it and attack from the inside, using tactics like phishing and social engineering to trick users into giving them an ‘in’ via for instance stolen credentials or hashes.

As a modern organization, there is never-ending risk to manage, with varying identities requiring access to wide swaths of resources deployed on-premises and in the cloud. As such, you must balance external and insider threat protection. It would be best to look for signs of an inside attack early through threat indicators.

But how many insider threat indicators should you examine? We’ll discuss that later.


How Insider Threats Differ from External Threats

In many ways, insider threats can be far more damaging than external threats.

That’s because an insider threat potentially has direct access to sensitive data and key applications that they can exploit by moving laterally and vertically until they reach their desired target(s). For instance, cybercriminals can easily hack a network administrator’s account to access the server root and database systems.

Most companies also don’t have ample protection against insider attacks, making it far easier to conduct than an external one. And in many cases, the attacker can do their malicious activity undetected.

For example, a hacker can phish users into giving them their credentials. They can then log in, pretend to be legitimate users, and discreetly steal data. They could also gain access to a trusted insider and then lay in waiting until they can pounce on their desired target. Without identity governance and administration (IGA) tools, administrators would never know this is the case because there are no guardrails to ensure least privilege.

Finally, the measures that protect you from external threats are largely useless against insider attacks because it just bypasses them. Thus, you’ll need specialized solutions to deal with them effectively.


What are Some Potential Insider Threat Indicators?

What are the different types of insider threat indicators that need to be monitored? In our opinion, these are the most important:

Unusual logins

These are one of the most common insider threat indicators. The idea is that if an account logs in with unusual circumstances, it’s possible that a hacker is trying to get in, and you should be suspicious.

One of the key indicators is logging in from a different, unrecognized device. A good practice is for users to stick with company-issued or registered devices. Anything else could be a sign that the legitimate user’s account got stolen by a hacker. Logging in outside working hours, such as in the morning’s wee hours, is also suspect.

Another threat indicator is logging in from an unusual location. For instance, if you just saw your employee in the office and they suddenly logged in to the system an hour later from another country, that’s a big red flag.

You should also be wary of multiple failed login attempts. This could indicate that a hacker is trying to use brute force to work their way into the system.

Of course, not all unusual login attempts are malicious. It may be that the employee just lost their phone and needed to log in using another device. That’s why it’s also important to investigate unusual logins and ensure they’re backed by a reasonable explanation.

To prevent unusual logins, it’s important to track and manage logins in an access management tool as part of a broader identity access management program.

Attempts to access unauthorized applications or data

One of the more telling insider threat indicators is repeated attempts by a user to access a network resource that’s not meant for them.

For example, you might notice someone trying to access a subset of data or a role than they have no reason to view as part of their job. Or they’re trying to perform privileged actions on an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system.

A malicious insider threat almost always causes unauthorized access attempts like these. A few tries might be passable as just curiosity from an innocent employee. But when done consistently, be wary.

To prevent these attempts, it’s best to adopt the principle of least privilege. Doing so means that a user should only get access to the data necessary for their current role or task – nothing more. You can enforce this with an IGA platform through automatic provisioning/de-provisioning of access, and by certifying access regularly.

You should also enforce zero trust. This approach assumes everyone is an untrustworthy user and therefore needs to “prove” themselves via regular authentication. Zero trust security can prevent a hacked user account from further accessing authorized resources.

Installing unauthorized software

Malicious software is one of the common indicators of insider threats because of how easy it is to leverage. One classic example is ransomware, software that cripples a system, or group of systems, unless the attacker is paid. Or in some cases, unauthorized access could let an outsider gain access to the network.

If a user is trying to install software without the permission of the IT or cybersecurity team, that’s a security risk worth investigating.

Fortunately, there are ways to prevent this.

One tactic is application whitelisting. It involves creating a list of pre-approved applications that can run in an employee’s workstation. Any other applications will be automatically barred. You can use endpoint security to block unauthorized applications on the user’s workstation.

You can also enforce security policies that prevent employees from installing software themselves. To do so, they would need the help and approval of the IT team.

Unusual escalation of access privileges

Sometimes, an insider threat can come from an account with privileged access. The problem with these accounts is that, when compromised, they can grant the same privileges to other uses – a potential vulnerability.

If you notice that a large number of your users are getting escalated access privileges, this may indicate a data breach happening in the background.

To protect against these incidents, you can use a privileged access management system (PAM). This identity security approach is specific to accounts with elevated privileges, such as CEOs, developers, and network administrators. When combined the abilities of IGA, namely putting guardrails in place to ensure that only privileged users are granted these types of administrative rights and that roles and policies are implemented, to ensure it remains this way.

Suspicious behaviors

Insider threat indicators aren’t all digital. You should also be on the lookout for social and behavioral cues among your employees, especially if it’s a drastic change from the norm.

An employee whose work performance suddenly drops with no reasonable explanation should be seen as suspicious. So are people who get into conflicts with superiors or co-workers easily. These employees might have a grudge or resentment that might motivate them to steal from the company.

You should also have a thorough resignation process. Make sure all their login information is cleared and access privileges revoked automatically. Any time access lingers when someone moves to a new role or leaves the company is time that attackers could pounce.


How IGA Can Help Mitigate Insider Threats

An IGA solution is a foundational defense against insider threats. That’s because it tackles the core of what makes insider threats dangerous and effective – identity theft.

IGA solutions offer a streamlined way to manage your organization’s identities, including user accounts and access privileges. It ensures that employees, contractors, and outsourced IT only access the network resources meant for them.

IGA can automatically grant and revoke access rights, depending on the situation. For example, if the system suspects an account is compromised, it can remove all its privileges to prevent it from getting further into the network. This is also useful for spotting and deleting orphaned accounts, which are easy targets for inside attacks.

IGA solutions also have monitoring and analytics capabilities that constantly check user activity. If it detects an irregularity, it can lock out that account immediately as a precaution. In other words, IGA is like having a watchful eye over your network 24/7.


Monitor Insider Threat Indicators with Omada

Robust monitoring and security analytics features detect any suspicious activities that may be a sign of an insider threat. As a result, you can quickly detect malicious access and use patterns to identify potential threats before they cause real damage.

Omada also helps protect against data loss by alerting you when files are accessed without authorization. It can even detect if privileged users are inappropriately accessing sensitive data and taking it outside of the organization. With this feature, you can quickly identify any potential insider threats and take action before the damage is done.

To learn more about cybersecurity strategy, contact us today or request a demo.

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