Insider Risk Management: What CISOs Need to Know

One of the most significant threats to an organization’s data security can appear innocuous: employees, contractors, and partners who have authorized access. Security incidents that originate with insiders are becoming exponentially more common, making insider risk management a priority for today’s companies. A strategic mix of technology, policies, and procedures can help organizations significantly reduce the likelihood of a security incident and mitigate the consequences if one does occur.

In this guide, we’ll explore why insider risk management is a vital part of a modern data security strategy, the forms insider risk can take, and the components of an effective insider risk management strategy.

Why Insider Risk Management is Essential for a Comprehensive Data Security Strategy

Insider risk is not a new issue, but its significance is growing for a variety of reasons. Security incidents stemming from employees, contractors, and partners are increasing in frequency, and the fallout is becoming more costly. Let’s look at the reasons why today’s organizations are focusing on risk management.

Insider Security Risks are Increasing
According to the Ponemon Institute’s 2022 Cost of Insider Threats Global Report, the prevalence of insider security incidents rose 44% in a two-year period, and the costs associated with them jumped by more than 30% in the same time frame. Incidents resulting from credential theft alone have doubled in just the past two years. Insider security incidents are becoming more common for various reasons.

  • Increased usage of sensitive data — Modern organizations are using sensitive data in new ways. For example, personally identifiable information (PII) may be used to improve the customer experience, increase marketing ROI, automate processes, and improve the delivery of products and services. Similarly, protected health information (PHI) is used to improve patient outcomes, develop medical treatments, and bill for health insurance.
  • Distributed teams — More companies are embracing a distributed workforce, with team members spread out around the country and the globe. While this provides greater flexibility, it is more challenging to monitor the activity of these remote workers, and the security of their home networks.
  • A more complex data stack — The modern data stack is complex, and it’s more difficult to secure data in multi-cloud environments or distributed architectures like data mesh. If access controls are not consistently applied across the entire ecosystem, there is a greater chance that a malicious actor can access data that they’re not authorized to see or use. This can happen in data sharing scenarios as well, even if there is no malintent.
  • Sophisticated threat tactics — Cybercriminals have realized that insiders can be exploited and are honing their tactics to improve their results. Social engineering attacks like phishing trick authorized users into providing access credentials or otherwise sensitive information to bad actors, effectively handing over the keys to a data environment.

The Consequences of a Data Breach are Significant
As businesses have become more data-driven, the impacts of a security incident have increased as well. Potential costs range from operational disruptions and reputational damage to financial and legal consequences.

    • Operational Disruptions – Organizations are increasingly relying on data for running, simplifying, and improving operations. For example, data powers smart transportation and manufacturing, healthcare services, and automated tools used in finance. But when data is lost, corrupted, or locked away in a ransomware attack, critical business processes grind to a halt. Even if compromised data can be recovered, the interruption to daily operations can be costly and cause ripple effects such as supply chain shortages or an inability to withdraw money from the bank.
    • Reputational Damage – When sensitive data is lost or stolen, an unpredictable chain of events can result in long-term reputational damage. Vendors may be hesitant to work with the organization, partnerships will appear less attractive, and customers who have had their data exposed are much more likely to shift their business to a competitor. A loss in customers’ trust often correlates with a loss in their business.
    • Legal and Regulatory Consequences – When data subject to compliance laws and regulations is compromised, legal fees and fines can be substantial. According to IBM, the average cost of a data breach globally is $4.35 million, and in the US that number doubles, totaling nearly $9.5 million per incident. Organizations in heavily regulated industries such as healthcare and finance face additional consequences for data privacy violations, and are subject to industry-specific standards like HIPAA and PCI DSS. Legal action from individual customers and consumer groups creates another financial burden that hampers a company’s ability to make a full and complete recovery following a security incident.
    • Drop in Revenue – Insiders have access to proprietary code, sensitive product designs, and costly research and development activities. When this highly sensitive data is destroyed, sold, or stolen, businesses may lose their competitive edge, miss out on time-sensitive opportunities, and reduce their ability to generate value from the data that was compromised. This is in addition to the losses that they will likely face from reputational damages and legal penalization.
    • Remediation Expenses – Recovering from a data breach is a time-consuming and expensive process. Depending on the type of attack, new security software and related infrastructure may need to be installed quickly, requiring additional security staff and the increased costs associated with expedited solutions. If business cannot continue while these remediation efforts are in progress, that will add to the financial impact of the recovery period.


Common Insider Risks

Insider risks come in a variety of forms, and organizations can often overlook vulnerabilities. Individuals with authorized access to a company’s digital resources may intentionally or unintentionally cause harm in the following ways.

Negligence – According to Ponemon’s 2022 report referenced above, negligence is the leading cause of security incidents, accounting for 56% of documented cases. Employees or contractors with privileged access may at times act carelessly, consciously choosing to ignore or simply forgetting to follow established security policies. Examples include clicking on a phishing link in an email, sharing user credentials with others, and improperly accessing sensitive data.

Malicious Intent – Malicious insiders intentionally use their privileged access to cause harm. These individuals may be current team members who steal valuable data for financial gain or disgruntled ex-employees who feel they have a score to settle. They can pose a threat if they choose to improperly share, compromise, or delete sensitive customer information or business-critical data, such as proprietary business processes.

Third Parties with Privileged Access – Third parties may also expose a company to risk if they have some level of privileged access to organizational resources. For example, a vendor may need an internal email address in order to access a company’s project management system, but then gain access to other tools using that address. Like employees or contractors, these third parties may intentionally or unintentionally expose the organization to risk. In addition, security flaws in a third party’s systems can also compromise data by exposing information like IP or trade secrets to unauthorized users.

Insider Risk Management Strategies

Mitigating insider risks requires a multi-pronged approach that starts with training anyone with access to digital resources. Teams should be trained on company data policies and procedures, and educated on good data security hygiene. And because the majority of insider incidents occur due to carelessness, leadership teams should be sure that they are regularly re-training employees in all departments on best practices and procedures. Additionally, companies may benefit from providing training on how to spot and report red-flag behaviors that may indicate that a fellow employee poses a threat to data security.

Technology is another component of a strong insider risk management strategy. Data security platforms give companies cross-cloud visibility and make it simpler to manage access. Here are six key features that should be part of your technology solution.

Anomaly Detection and Audit LogsData monitoring and detection for anomalies in access patterns is an essential capability for managing security risk. When a user suddenly starts engaging in atypical access behavior, it’s possible that data policies are being violated. Maintaining detailed audit logs that track access behavior will also improve compliance by making data security and governance teams better able to see who is using specific data assets and how. Key capabilities include sensitive data discovery and classification, tracking of sensitive data, the ability to monitor and gauge data access risk, and the detection of data privacy risks.

Distributed Stewardship – Delegating cloud data management responsibilities to those closest to the data allows cross-functional teams to secure their data without impeding their ability to use it. This is particularly true for decentralized and distributed data architectures like data mesh. A data security platform that can empower teams to write, apply, and maintain data policies in plain language or as-code helps clear workflow bottlenecks, so teams can leverage the full value of their data.

Real-Time Policy Orchestration – Automating real-time policy enforcement allows users to access their data quickly, while ensuring it is covered by the appropriate policies no matter where it resides. Additionally, making access decisions at query time makes enforcement more fine-grained and dynamic, so the right people can access the right data at the right time. Strong data security solutions will separate policy from platform, ensuring that access policies are applied consistently across all queries and cloud technologies.

Attribute-Based Access Control – Many organizations are moving away from traditional role-based access control (RBAC) due to its complexity and lack of flexibility, particularly in modern, multi-cloud tech stacks. In contrast, modern attribute-based access control (ABAC) dynamically determines data access based on information related to geography, clearance level, purpose, and other factors, helping keep sensitive data more secure. The multi-dimensionality of an ABAC model has been shown to reduce the number of policies required to manage data access by 93x, according to a study by GigaOm Research, making it a clear winner over static RBAC.

Dynamic Data MaskingDynamic data masking capabilities work internally and externally to protect sensitive information with techniques like hashing, regular expression, rounding, conditional masking, and k-anonymization. Masking sensitive data allows team members to use and share sensitive data without exposing it. This is especially useful for compliance with regulations like GDPR and HIPAA, which set out guidelines about how to anonymize data.

Data Privacy ControlsA good data security platform allows even non-technical teams to implement data privacy controls — without the need to copy data. Teams can deploy advanced privacy enhancing technologies (PETs) such as anonymization, pseudonymization, and randomized response. These advanced techniques reduce complexity and improve user access to valuable, highly sensitive data while ensuring compliance with regulations like GDPR and HIPAA.

Rethinking Insider Risk Management

Insider risk management is more important than ever as companies become increasingly data-driven. With a combination of training and technology, organizations can mitigate risk while ensuring that their people can efficiently access the resources they need.

Read How Immuta Enables a Zero Trust Architecture to learn how to use a Zero Trust architecture to minimize insider risk without impeding accessibility.