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To Defend Against Insiders, Think Bigger Picture

If you were to ask the average computer user about which one poses the greatest threat to the data security of a business - employees or hackers - they would almost instinctively answer the latter.

Insider-related breaches tend to go underreported due to several factors, including that the organization never detects the attack or because they deem it accidental and prefer to sweep it under the rug. As a result, with the exception of some notable examples, news stories about information security incidents almost always gravitate toward those initiated by outside adversaries.

But if you were to gather a group of technology experts and ask them the same question, you might get a different answer. In fact, many IT and security professionals believe the risk posed by insiders is actually far greater - and potentially costlier - than outsiders because employees and contractors are much more capable, as trusted users, to invite in cybercriminals via social engineering or freely canvass the network themselves to extract large amounts of sensitive data without sounding any alarms.

Yet organizations tend to underinvest in rebuffing the insider threat - both of the accidental and deliberate variety - choosing instead to primarily invest in perimeter-based defenses designed to deter outside intruders. This is often attributable to a lack of adequate in-house resources, similar to most of the security challenges you face.

Every Threat is an Insider Threat

But the insider threat stretches beyond your own personnel and contractors. Cybercriminals, despite their sophistication, typically cannot just walk into and out of an organization without having exploited some type of insider-enabled vulnerability - from a misconfigured server or poorly coded web application to a poorly managed privileged account to a careless user getting phished. And in many cases, by compromising credentials, external attackers essentially assume the identity of a privileged user anyway.

As such, the conversation shouldn't be as much about insiders versus outsiders, but about building a holistic security program that treats both parties as similar threats - or better yet, one that really makes no distinction between them.

While the insider threat necessitates certain controls that wouldn't be necessary for hackers - such as background checks, security education awareness and an employee termination plan - much of what will help you with the insider threat problem is something that will also help you to negate outside attacks.

These include:  

  • Understanding where your data and assets live (and who has access to them)

  • Detecting and preventing confidential data from being sent outside your walls
  • Monitoring your security, including on endpoints and devices  
  • Limiting access and enforcing the principle of least privilege 
  • Testing for vulnerabilities through scanning and penetration testing 
  • Requiring password complexity (preferably mandating passphrases)  
  • Performing log reviews to help you spot suspicious behavior 
  • Conducting rapid incident response to trace the source of the threat and limit damage

As mentioned above, you may lack the internal resources to do all of this yourself. If that is the case, consider partnering with a managed security services provider who can execute these tasks on your behalf.

Dan Kaplan is manager of online content at Trustwave and a former IT security reporter and editor.