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Top 5 Internal Data Security Threats and How to Deal with Them

When considering cybersecurity strategies for data protection, guarding against external threats is usually the first on the list. However, headline grabbing cyberattacks account for only half of the root causes of data breaches according to the 2019 Cost of a Data Breach Report released by the Ponemon Institute and IBM Security. The rest are due to internal threats and system glitches.

The human factor is often hardest to control and predict when it comes to data protection. While some companies invest in employee training in hopes that a well-educated work force, aware of the financial and reputational consequences of data breaches, will be enough to increase vigilance and deter poor security practices. However, the truth is, in many case, organizations are only one careless employee away from a damaging security incident. There is also always the potential danger of malicious insiders, disgruntled employees that want to damage a company’s reputation or steal data on their way out of an organization.

But what are the most common internal incidents and practices that represent a threat to a company’s data security? Let’s have a look at the most prevalent five:

1. Social Engineering

Although technically an external threat, social engineering only works if someone inside a company can be tricked into revealing information. It implies that employees are manipulated into giving up passwords or other confidential information. Social engineering can take the form of attackers impersonating friends or other trusted sources and requesting sensitive information or unexpected offers and prizes from sought-after brands that contain or link to malware.

While antimalware and antivirus software can help flag these kind of malicious emails, social engineering is best dealt with through training. Employees must be educated in the many ways they may be approached by outside attackers and how they need to react when they receive suspicious requests. An understanding of social engineering is essential in preventing it. Training should also be put to the test to identify any potential weaknesses among employees.

2. Data Sharing Outside the Company

Employees sharing sensitive data either publically or with third parties outside the company can spell disaster. This usually happens out of carelessness: a reply all button is hit instead of a simple reply, information is sent to the wrong email address, something is accidentally posted publically.

These kind of incidents are rarely helped by training as they represent human errors which we are all prone to. Specialized software like Data Loss Prevention (DLP) tools can help organizations keep track of sensitive data and ensure that its transfer, whether by email or other internet services, is limited or blocked all together.

3. Shadow IT

The use of unauthorized third party software, applications or internet services in the work place is often hard to trace by IT departments which is where the term shadow IT comes from. The reasons for the prevalence of shadow IT are fairly simple: employees use known applications out of habit, because they improve their efficiency and lighten their workload or are more user-friendly than company-authorized alternatives.

This is problematic because companies are, most of the time, unware that this is happening, essentially creating a blind spot in cybersecurity strategies. A further danger is the weak security of these third party services which can lead to data leaks or breaches, but also noncompliance with data protection legislation making shadow IT a legal liability as well.

Shadow IT usually signals a failure on the part of the company to provide employees with the right tools to perform their tasks. Organizations should have an open dialogue with their employees to understand their technological needs and try their best to meet them. DLP tools can also help companies prevent employees from uploading sensitive information to these unauthorized services and, by monitoring these attempts, to reach a better understanding of shadow IT within their organization.

4. Use of unauthorized devices

A lot of data protection policies focus on data transfers outside the company network over the internet and fail to consider another often used method: portable devices. USBs in particular have long been the bane of data protection strategies. Easy to lose or steal, but convenient to use, USBs have led to some disastrous data breaches such as the by now infamous Heathrow Airport security incident in which a careless employee lost a USB with over 1,000 confidential files, including highly sensitive security and personal information.

The easiest way to prevent these kind of breaches is to block USB and peripheral ports all together. However, there is no denying USBs’ usefulness in the work place. For companies who still want to use USBs, there are measures they can take to do so securely. Chiefly among them is encryption of all files transferred onto USB sticks combined with a trusted devices policy which would allow only devices defined as trusted to connect to a company computer.

5. Physical theft of company devices

In today’s increasingly mobile work environment, employees often take their work computers and portable devices out of the office. Whether working remotely, visiting clients or attending industry events, work devices often leave the security of company networks and become more vulnerable to both physical theft and outside tampering.

Encryption is always a good solution to guard against physical theft. Whether it’s laptops, mobile phones or USBs, encryption removes the possibility that anyone who steals them can access the information on them. Enabling remote wipe options can also help organizations erase all data on stolen devices from a distance.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the threats to data security?
Data security threats can be divided into insider and outsider threats.

  • Outsider or external threats are those that come from outside of the organization and usually are carried out by hacktivists, other countries, and even competition. Common methods include ransomware, phishing attacks, and hacking.

  • Internal threats originate within the organization itself and usually are carried out by a current and former employee, a contractor, a business associate, etc. Insider attacks can be malicious or inadvertent. Common types of insider threats include unauthorized data transfers, abuse of employee privileges, and data sharing.


Learn more about insider threat management

How to ensure data security?
Data security is critical for every company nowadays. When looking to ensure that their sensitive data stays safe, organizations should consider the following:
  • Implement security tools such as firewalls, intrusion detection, and antivirus systems that help to prevent threats. Companies looking to mitigate insider threats should also consider deploying a Data Loss Prevention (DLP) solution that safeguards sensitive data from falling into the wrong hands or leaving the company.

  • Train employees on data security: As a company’s employees are among the biggest threats to data security, they need to be trained on best practices to prevent data leakage and data loss. An efficient training means ensuring that the employees are informed about the importance of data security, know how to detect threats and avoid leakages, and are empowered to report potential privacy incidents.

  • Develop an information security policy and an incident response plan: An information security policy is a first critical step in securing the company’s systems and data. An incident response plan has an important role in dealing better with cybersecurity incidents, as well as limiting damages and restoring public and employee trust.

Find out how big companies protect their data.

What is an internal security threat?
An internal security threat originates within the organization itself and it can be caused by any user with legitimate access to the company’s assets such as a current or former employee, a contractor, a business associate, etc. Security threats caused by insiders include sending sensitive data to the wrong recipient, loss or theft of confidential information, and storing data in an insecure location.

Read more about insider threats.

How to reduce internal security threats with DLP?
Data Loss Prevention (DLP) solutions can help companies to reduce internal data security threats by offering data visibility and control. By deploying such a solution, organizations can monitor activity related to device use and file transfers, thus controlling what data leaves the company and preventing data exfiltration. DLP tools can also help to reach a better understanding of shadow IT within the organization.

Learn more about our advanced DLP solution.

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