to be a significant threat to corporate enterprises, with more attackers
focusing on large companies in recent months. Threat actors are deploying
sophisticated malware in well-planned campaigns that demand more expensive
payments, often causing financial and reputational damage. Recently, a
disturbing twist in ransomware cases has become more common: an attack either
deliberately facilitated or unwittingly supported by a company employee. With
an insider’s help, the attack comes swiftly and with devastating impact,
compelling the company to pay a large sum and spend untold hours of already
scarce resources to recover.
Even as some
employees are allowed back into the workplace, a large proportion may still be
operating remotely. As a result, we can expect to see an increase in
insider-caused information security compromises as the pandemic continues.
To better understand
why this type of attack occurs and how to respond, it is worth examining what
insider threats look like and what may motivate these individuals.
generally refers to a security risk that originates within the targeted
organization. Insiders can include current and former employees, consultants or
business partners. Some may simply be negligent, used as an unwitting conduit
to allow threat actors to steal company information. Other insider threats are
borne of intentional acts, with someone either acting alone or with an outside
threat actor. These insiders seek to hurt their employer deliberately,
leveraging their position, knowledge and access to cause damage.
In the case of the
intentionally malicious insider, some of the common motivating factors include
money, politics and emotion (e.g., frustration, depression, boredom). As more
companies furlough and lay off employees to survive COVID-19, emotions are
running high. Many workers are angry. Others face acute financial constraints
that could make them more susceptible to outside actors looking for a way in.
Those workers who have suffered a pay cut or lost their job altogether may
behave in ways they never would have otherwise considered and seek to lash out
at their employer. In addition, given the politically charged landscape around
COVID-19, some employees will disagree with their employer’s decisions about
returning to work, and may act out accordingly.
Such increases in
malicious insider activity have followed significant events before. For
example, after Hurricane Katrina and the September 11 terrorist attacks,
intentionally malicious insider activity became more frequent. The sheer
breadth of COVID-19, however, makes this event different. In the United States,
real unemployment reached a high of more than 23% this summer, with job losses
totaling more than 40 million workers. Under that kind of strain, people may
The increase in non-intentional insiders may
be driven by a lack of technological savvy, a desire for convenience or
misplaced or inadequately protected devices. In the first months of the
pandemic, companies took employees accustomed to working in an office with IT
support staff nearby and abruptly shifted them to working from home. Companies
introduced or became more reliant on technologies that many employees were not
fully skilled at using, to the detriment of security. Couple that with the
exponential surge in cyberattack activity observed since the beginning of the
pandemic and threat actors who are always looking to take advantage of a
crisis, and the odds for a successful attack likewise increase.
employees are turning to “shadow IT” (unauthorized applications) more than
ever. With entire workforces now either remote or on-site with staggered
schedules, employees will inevitably resort to what is available and convenient
to help get their work done, Googling for a quick fix and downloading
potentially dangerous solutions.
Now that all or most
of an organization’s employees and other business partners are not operating
from secure office spaces, misplacing or simply failing to protect devices
while working remotely is also a real hazard. Consider an employee who leaves a
home computer used for work open and accessible to roommates who could see
confidential information, or family members whose internet activity could leave
the machine vulnerable to malware.
These factors create
ideal circumstances for a dramatic increase in insider threat activity.
Companies can address the increased threat by taking proactive steps, such as:
- Implementing monitoring, detection and
response tools to promptly identify or even stop anomalous, suspicious activity
- Deploying policies and controls that disallow
the use of unauthorized tools
- Monitoring employee activity, such as
tracking email traffic, and using data loss prevention tools to log files
accessed (after consulting with an employment lawyer)
- Increasing employee training, with a specific
focus on cybersecurity challenges associated with remote work
leverage their resources to anticipate insider threats and defend against them
before real damage stand the best chance of mitigating this growing risk.