Guarding the Gates From Within: The Rising Tide of Insider Threats

In May 2022, a striking incident unfolded at Yahoo, shedding light on the tangible risks and far-reaching consequences of insider threats. Qian Sang, a senior research scientist at Yahoo, was caught stealing confidential information about Yahoo’s AdLearn product. The compromised data included 570,000 files containing source code, backend architecture information, secret algorithms, and other vital intellectual property (IP). The theft had the potential to erode Yahoo’s competitive advantage, exposing the company’s trade secrets and providing competitors with significant insights.

A Cybersecurity Insiders report shows that a staggering 74% of organizations are moderately vulnerable to insider threats. Currently, the digital landscape faces a significant and growing challenge, with insider threats accounting for approximately 31% of all data breaches. This shows that nearly one-third of breaches originate from within organizations, involving insiders such as employees or contractors. The financial repercussions are substantial, with the global average cost of an insider threat reaching a staggering $8.76 million, encompassing legal fees, reputational damage, and loss of data. 

Insider threats manifest in various forms, including malicious activities, disgruntled employees, and unintentional errors, representing some of the most overlooked yet prevalent risks to organizations worldwide. As we delve into crucial insider threat statistics for 2023, we uncover insights into the evolving nature of these threats and explore strategies for safeguarding organizational assets.

The Evolving Nature of Insider Threats

Insider threats have evolved to become a multifaceted risk, affecting both public and private sectors across various industries. As defined by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), “an insider threat occurs when an individual with authorized access uses it, intentionally or unintentionally, to cause harm to an organization’s mission, resources, personnel, or systems”. These threats can manifest in several ways, including espionage, sabotage, theft, and cyber acts; each posing unique challenges to organizational security.

Who is an Insider?

An insider is not just an employee; it includes a wide range of individuals who once had or still have access to an organization’s resources. This includes members, contractors, vendors, and anyone entrusted with sensitive information and access. The knowledge these insiders possess about the organization’s fundamentals, business strategies, products, and services makes them potential threats if they misuse their access.

Types of Insider Threats

We can categorize insider threats into unintentional and intentional threats. Unintentional threats often result from negligence or accidents, such as misplacing sensitive information or falling victim to phishing attacks. Intentional threats are malicious actions that harm the organization, often motivated by personal grievances or the desire for financial gain. Collusive and third-party threats also pose significant risks, where insiders collaborate with external actors or vendors to misuse their access. 

In this context, it’s important to highlight the role of Initial Access Brokers. These are individuals or entities specializing in gaining unauthorized access to target systems and then selling this access on the DarkNet. They employ a variety of methods, including but not limited to phishing and deploying information stealers. They may actively seek individuals within organizations who are willing to leak access credentials, emphasizing the multifaceted nature of insider threats. The existence of such a market amplifies the need for comprehensive security measures to safeguard against the diverse array of internal and external threats aiming to exploit insider access.

The Impact of Insider Threats

The effects of insider threats are broad and can lead to big financial losses, damage to a company’s reputation, and legal troubles. Companies dealing with these threats face the immediate loss of data and resources, a lasting impact on customer trust, and the repercussions of a breach of data protection laws. 

In terms of money, dealing with an insider threat can be very costly. The direct costs to fix and control the breach, on top of fines for not following data protection laws, can strain a company’s finances. Plus, losing confidential information or creative ideas can have a long-term effect on competition and market presence. 

The harm to a company’s reputation can be just as bad. In today’s world, where news travels fast, any breach of trust can quickly harm a company’s image. This loss of trust can lead to a decrease in customer loyalty and business partnerships, affecting the company’s bottom line. 

The legal issues that arise from insider threats can be complex and costly. Companies may face lawsuits, regulatory fines, and the need to invest in legal defenses, all of which can divert resources away from business growth and innovation.

Lastly, the internal impact on employee morale and trust within the organization should not be overlooked. Insider threats can create an atmosphere of suspicion and decrease overall job satisfaction, which can lead to increased employee turnover and decreased productivity.

Mitigation Strategies

Zero Trust

Combating insider threats requires a varied and comprehensive approach and adopting a Zero Trust mindset. This security philosophy is based on the principle of “never trust, always verify”, advocating for the continual authentication of every user and device accessing the organization’s resources, regardless of their location within or outside the organizational boundaries. Where traditional perimeter-based defenses no longer protect against increasingly sophisticated threats, Zero Trust aims to enhance security by continuously verifying trustworthiness. This model is pivotal in ensuring that trust is never assumed and that access privileges are meticulously managed.

Identity and Access Management (IAM)

Effective Workforce IAM is essential in regulating and monitoring user access to sensitive information and critical systems. IAM involves the enforcement of stringent authentication protocols, adherence to the principle of least-privilege access, and the regular auditing of user activities and access logs. By managing and verifying user identities and ensuring that access to resources is granted based on necessity and job function, IAM helps in detecting unusual behavior, preventing unauthorized access to confidential data, and mitigating the risk of insider threats.

Separation of Duties

Organizations can achieve an additional layer of security through implementing separation of duties. This involves dividing tasks and privileges among multiple people or systems; which refers to the intricate network of hardware and software components that underpin an organization's operational infrastructure. These systems can include servers, databases, applications, and security protocols. Integrating such a comprehensive approach ensures that even if one element of the system experiences a security lapse or becomes compromised, the overall integrity of the system remains intact. It creates a multi-layered security net, reducing the chances of catastrophic security incidents that could result from a single point of failure. This fundamental principle ensures that no single individual has complete access to sensitive information or systems, ‌reducing the risk of unauthorized access and insider threats.

Application Security (AppSec)

A critical component of the Zero Trust model is the implementation of robust AppSec standards. AppSec plays a vital role in bolstering the security of internal applications by identifying and remediating vulnerabilities proactively. This minimizes the attack surface available to malicious insiders and safeguards the organization’s digital assets. AppSec involves various practices and processes, including secure coding, software testing, and vulnerability scanning, which collectively contribute to the development of secure applications and the prevention of security breaches. 

Security Training and Awareness

In addition, organizations should prioritize regular security training and awareness programs to educate employees about the diverse forms of insider threats, the tactics employed by malicious actors, and the protective measures they can adopt. Fostering a culture of accountability and transparency is equally vital, as it encourages employees to report suspicious activities and ensures that security policies are clearly communicated, understood, and enforced.


Secure data backup and timely software patching are also integral components of a holistic mitigation strategy. By maintaining up-to-date backups of critical data, organizations can expedite recovery from incidents of data sabotage or theft. Regular software updates and patching are crucial in addressing known vulnerabilities and protecting your organization from exploitation.

In Conclusion

Yahoo’s prompt response to the theft of their valuable data and information, which included filing three charges against Sang for IP data theft, underscores the importance of proactive measures and legal recourse in addressing such breaches. 

Insider threats present a multifaceted and continually evolving challenge to organizations across a spectrum of sectors, calling for vigilant and adaptive security measures. It’s imperative to integrate a variety of security control families, including organizational, people, physical, and technological, to build a comprehensive security posture. By fostering a culture of transparency, accountability, and continuous learning, organizations can empower their workforce to be active participants in protecting critical assets. Staying ahead of emerging trends and threats and integrating diverse security controls is pivotal in navigating the intricate digital landscape and ensuring the security and integrity of our interconnected world.