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How to Spot and Avoid Insider Threats in Your Organization

Key phrase: Insider threat

The digital world is getting more and more complex, with information being circulated at a rapid speed. In the wake of the recent data leaks, hacking incidents, ransomware attacks, etc., often the question of an insider playing a part in the attacks is raised.

Although businesses and governments put millions of dollars into the security infrastructure, one intentional or unintentional click can lead to sensitive data being transferred or leaked.

An insider may turn astray for several reasons, such as to gain a monetary advantage, seek revenge on a particular colleague, insincerity, or for trivial reasons like seeking a thrill.

An insider or a pawn who spies on the orders of another enterprise or organization may do so out of fear or threat by them. A traitor, turncoat, or turn cloak may try their best to blend in. However,, there are some specific clues that can help distinguish them from the rest. Almost every criminal leaves proof, clues, or traces behind unknowingly.

Cost of insider threats

Having a betrayer among the staff is not only hurtful but also an expensive affair. Not knowing who is crafting a plan to trade official secrets, classified documents, contracts, and personal data with someone with a devious plan can lead to losses.


An insider threat may be inclined to help out a competitive company in order to benefit from them. They may even help them gain access to confidential information to gain their trust and may even assist in winning accolades in events such as the bug bounty program.

Data loss

Data loss is not just limited to having sensitive information public; however, it is a loss of trust among the customers and stakeholders and a loss of credibility. When an organization is under a cyberattack, it reacts in a myriad of ways that may not work in its favor. Such as covering up the hack, which would instead blow out of proposition when the media reports it. Class action lawsuits, fines, and loss of customers are the impending impacts.

An insider threat may cause all of these by accepting a phishing email, allowing remote access to the opponent, or simply sharing every demanded document with cybercriminals, rivals, or on the dark web.

Financial loss

Losing millions of dollars is one of the common threats posed by an insider who works for an outsider. Not just losing to the opponent, leaked data can be pulled by legal authorities and data regulatory bodies to charge a massive fine on the company. They may also have to reimburse the victims whose data has been stolen or who have been impacted due to the unethical trade.


Cyberespionage is a common threat to world peace as it leads to trading off classified documents with other countries. Having necessary statistics about other nations in hand can bolster the confidence of fighting nations to overpower the other. Governments, military, and intelligence groups may use deviant ways to gain more military preparedness, nuclear power, fake voting, and other effects.

 Who are they?

Stolen data can be misused to cause harm not just to the company but also to people whom the organization caters to. The dark web is filled with threats and deadlines about sensitive exfiltrated system data that is available for download. Not spotting a traitor before it is too late can impact in more ways than one.

How to spot an insider threat

Although these signs may not always be applicable to all individuals showing them, it will help to draw attention to something that seems suspicious.

1. Looking in the eye for being blamed may be a sign that they are conscious of their cheating and are trying not to be caught.

2. Fumbling while offering help that might lead to a positive change in the company may be another reason to keep someone on one’s radar for suspicious activities. Usually, those who are working against their company will not speak for the company if it will bring them good results. They will dodge questions and speak about trivial or less important matters in handling specific concerns.

3. Escapism is another trait that can help spot an insider threat who is constantly ‘working’ on something and needs several reminders and running through projects that they already know about. Handling two jobs with one for the opponent may bog them down at times and lead to excuses related to another work or project just to appear busy.

4. They do not have a direct, or clear answer to questions. They will find a route out of anything that causes speculations about inside projects or events because they would have less to do with it and more to do with how to disclose the progress to the rivals.

5. Having more luxury than colleagues despite not having any other business or source of income can be a way to determine if someone is splurging money earned from selling inside data. This alone need not be a reason however, teamed with other traits and behaviors, this aspect of an insider threat may help in identifying them.

6. Being overly calm and having a gentle personality can be a garb taken by an insider threat. This can help them stay out of focus and leave no one suspicious. It is one way to gel with others yet keep on with their devious plans. Some employees may be genuinely calm or naturally less talkative. Hence, this trait also must be teamed with others to help if they are the one.

7. Staying back and handling data after office hours and seeking more permissions is one very strong clue in determining if someone is being extra helpful just to get their hands on sensitive information. While others are away after work, if one employee who has gained everyone’s trust is extremely interested and willing to stay back and work extra hours, this can be a sign. Moreover, if they ask colleagues to take a break and encourage working all by themselves out of trust or camaraderie, need not always be a sign of a proactive or hardworking employee.

8. Being easily irritated at being asked simple questions can flare a vivid reaction among insider threats. Juggling two responsibilities such as a regular job and then cautiously trading secret data outside can make a spy nervous enough to feel easily accused, overtly vulnerable to simple questions, and visibly upset or angry when questioned about routine or specific official works.

Taking it forward after finding someone acting suspiciously

Once suspicion is derived and someone seems like they are acting differently, it would be best to take certain actions that help to be sure if they are an insider threat. However, making sure that they are completely unaware of these actions is utterly important because if they are not a traitor, they may feel disappointed enough to quit or humiliated to take it to the higher-ups against those who doubted them.

This communication must be private as it can lead to several reactions including bitterness and strained relationships. After letting the authorities know about any suspicious behavior in a fellow employee, it is best for the person reporting the suspect to step away and let the authorities take it forward.

1. Speaking with authority – Speaking with the immediate superior may be a better option than with the boss. If the immediate authority seems to maintain a friendly relationship with the suspected individual, then contacting another authority may be advisable. One can take it forward through a one-on-one conversation

2. Being respectful – Regardless of what happens in the end, it is important that every communication is made in the company’s interest and not a personal observation. Communications can be formal, and accusations must be based on observations. No accusation must be made as a final judgment because it may all prove wrong.

3. Letting someone know – If a staff derives suspicious for no reason yet they must be reported, having an informal communication where this is made explicit that it is merely a gut feeling would do. Moving on and not making the suspected staff feel uncomfortable is advised otherwise it can backfire.

4. Asking to trace their digital footprint – In order to prove whether someone has been involved in unethical activity, it would help if, while reporting them, it is asked that their online activities using official systems be shared. Checking the CCTV footage can give away a lot of proof to see where the suspect has spent most of their time while being in the office and which systems, they have had access to. It can also help in knowing what information they have sent to others that were not a part of the company.

5. Submitting any proofs – If there is evidence confirming the claim of unethical activities such as emails, photographs of meeting a suspicious person outside of the office, discussing sensitive topics that they were not told about, CCTV footage, SMSes from rivals, etc., it would be best to make a copy of these and submit them as proof.

Sharing such information only with trusted authorities who have demonstrated their loyalty is another aspect of reporting a suspect that one must consider. If their higher-ups are also entangled in the fraud, it may backfire and lead to action against the “snitch”. One can also stay anonymous and make a call from an unknown number, send an email from a new email address with a VPN securing their IP address, or leave a letter on their desk witha the details printed on it.

Asking to be left anonymous and not being mentioned in any communications can also be done. However, it need not be certain that it will be followed depending upon the need for testimonials. Making several accusations against colleagues may also make the accuser look suspicious. Hence it must be done after several observations and evaluating one’s own previous judgments.

If the suspicion is proven right, the accused may face legal actions, and fines, besides dismissal from their duties. If they are loyal, the accuser must move on and avoid being suspicious about things that they know they have been wrong about. Doing any good for the company must be done considerately and not involve personal feelings.

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