Data has become much more than just a digital asset — it is the cornerstone upon which modern business empires thrive. As businesses pivot to digital strategies, the value and significance of data only amplify.
But, while much is said about external threats like cybercriminals and hackers, there's an equally menacing adversary from within – Internal Threats.
It takes a distressing 85 days on average to detect and contain an insider threat incident, and reportedly, the increased by 76% between 2018 and 2022. However, that half of medium and large enterprises will have adopted formal insider threat programs by 2025, up from the 10% current adoption rate today.
This article serves as a guide for Chief Data Officers (CDO) and Chief Information Officers (CIO), elucidating steps to identify, combat, and prevent these internal vulnerabilities.
Nowadays, it is easy to fixate on external threats, with the specter of hackers constantly looming large. Yet, often, the dangers lie much closer to home. Internal threats, whether intentional or accidental, can be just as devastating, if not more so.
The threats that originate inside are much more difficult to prevent and detect. In fact, many data breaches resulting from insider threats are unintentional, making them a subtle but significant risk.
Additionally, outsiders sometimes exploit the vulnerabilities of insiders, blurring the lines between the two types of threats.
The intricacies of these threats emanate from their proximity and the trust that businesses instill in their internal stakeholders. Before we delve deeper, it is crucial to to build effective strategies against them.
Malicious insiders: Deliberate acts of espionage or sabotage from employees are neither uncommon nor trivial. Driven by motives ranging from personal vendettas to financial incentives, these insiders can wreak havoc. Their intimate understanding of the organizational infrastructure can be a lethal weapon if used maliciously.
Negligent employees: Not all threats are intentional. An employee might mistakenly share sensitive data or leave it exposed, leading to potential compromises. Such negligence, while not malevolent, can be just as detrimental.
Third-party vendors/contractors: While external partners like vendors and contractors play a pivotal role in an organization's functioning, their access to internal systems can be a potential threat vector. Inadequately secured systems or malicious intents from their end can jeopardize an organization's data integrity.
Vigilance is the first line of defense. Merely acknowledging the existence of internal threats isn't sufficient; businesses must deploy multifaceted strategies to detect and counteract them effectively. Here's a closer examination of the vital tools in the defense arsenal:
Audits meticulously scrutinize an organization's data access logs, usage patterns, and user behaviors to ensure adherence to standard protocols. They provide a snapshot of potential vulnerabilities, deviations, and lapses in the system. By comparing these snapshots over time, trends of anomalies can be identified, enabling timely interventions.
Regular audits can spot unauthorized access, data mishandling, or inconsistencies in data management. For instance, a department accessing data not pertinent to its operations might be flagged for further investigation.
Unlike the periodic nature of audits, continuous monitoring is a real-time oversight of an organization's data environment. Immediate detection of anomalies can lead to quicker responses, potentially preventing data breaches. This also means that even minor deviations are detected, ensuring a tighter security posture.
Advanced monitoring tools can send instant alerts for suspicious activities, like sudden large data transfers, or multiple failed login attempts, thereby allowing IT teams to intervene before a potential breach materializes.
While continuous monitoring is highly effective, it comes with its own set of challenges. One significant issue is information overflow. The constant stream of alerts and notifications can overwhelm IT teams, making it difficult to distinguish between minor deviations and serious threats.
To manage this overflow, organizations often turn to automated controls. However, setting up these controls is not always straightforward. They require a deep understanding of the organization's data flow and potential vulnerabilities, and poorly configured controls can result in false positives or even missing genuine threats.
The levels of access control determine who can access what data and under which circumstances. Access can be granted based on roles, departments, or specific job functions. By minimizing the number of individuals who have access to sensitive data, the potential points of compromise are drastically reduced. If an employee doesn’t require access to certain data for their job, they simply won't have the ability to access it.
Implementing multi-factor authentication, detailed user profiling, and periodic access reviews can ensure that only authorized personnel have access, and any attempt by unauthorized users is promptly denied and reported.
External parties such as suppliers and consulting companies often get temporary access to specific projects. However, it is crucial to have clarity on who is managing and enforcing the revocation of these access rights as employees come and go in and out of projects.
Failing to do so can result in "ghost accounts," which can be a significant security risk. Regular audits can help identify such accounts and ensure that only current, authorized users have access.
By intertwining these mechanisms, businesses can cast a vigilant, omnipresent gaze over their digital assets. Coupled with a proactive attitude, this trinity of defenses ensures that the odds of catching a threat, before it metamorphoses into a breach, are significantly heightened.
Transitioning from detection and recognition, an organization's defense mechanism requires fortification with proactive measures. Recognizing a threat is only half the battle; the true challenge lies in forestalling these threats before they even materialize. Here are the essential proactive measures, their significance, and their applications:
Principle of Least Privilege (PoLP) — This principle ensures that individuals have access only to the data and resources essential for their job functions. By meticulously setting access controls and frequently reviewing them, businesses can minimize data exposure and reduce potential breach points.
Data encryption — Encrypting data transforms it into a code to prevent unauthorized access, making it unreadable to those without the decryption key. Whether data is in transit or at rest, encryption ensures that even if there's a breach, the stolen data remains unintelligible.
Incident Response Plan (IRP) — Having a roadmap on what to do post-breach ensures swift action, minimizes damage, and can restore operations quicker. Regularly updated and drilled IRPs equip employees with the knowledge and procedures to follow during a data incident, ensuring minimal chaos and swift mitigation.
Regular patch management — Cyber vulnerabilities often emerge from outdated software or unpatched systems. By maintaining a consistent patch management protocol, organizations ensure that their software is up-to-date, plugging any known vulnerabilities.
With these proactive measures, businesses can ensure they're not just reacting to threats, but actively preventing them. The blend of recognition and these anticipatory strategies form a formidable defense against internal threats.
No department or individual can function as an island. When teams — ranging from IT to HR, from marketing to logistics — work in unison, they create a holistic shield, covering blind spots that might exist when working in isolation.
Cross-functional collaboration fosters a culture of shared responsibility for data security. Through joint endeavors like hackathons or security brainstorming sessions, departments can pool insights, creating stronger defense strategies.
As the sophistication of threats is escalating, so must the knowledge base of those tasked to counteract them. Training is a continuous journey: regular training sessions ensure that all employees, irrespective of their role, are equipped with the latest best practices in data security.
More importantly, training transforms the workforce from potential vulnerability points into the first line of defense against breaches — a formidable barrier against internal threats.
Beyond the immediate realm of threat management, the emphasis on development plays a dual role. On one hand, it ensures that the organization’s infrastructure, tools, and systems are constantly updated.
On the other, a culture of continuous development and learning reinforces the message: the organization values and invests in its human resources. This cultivates loyalty, reducing the chances of malicious insider threats.
The world of data security, particularly against internal threats, is akin to a vast, intricate tapestry, where each thread holds significance. In such a scenario, the mere recognition of threats, while essential, isn’t the endgame. The true triumph lies in forging a comprehensive, forward-looking strategy, where proactive defense mechanisms seamlessly intertwine with reactive measures.
To truly fortify the digital fort, it is crucial for CDOs and CIOs to champion a culture that is both vigilant and adaptive. The insights and strategies outlined are more than mere guidelines; they represent a call to action. A proactive, educated, and collaborative approach not only ensures data security but also positions an organization at the vanguard of the digital age, ready to leverage opportunities and stave off challenges with equal aplomb.
About the author:
Ben Herzberg is an experienced tech leader and book author with a background in endpoint security, analytics, and application & data security. He filled roles such as the CTO of Cynet, and Director of Threat Research at Imperva. He is the Chief Scientist for Satori, the DataSecOps platform.