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How to Quantify the Risk of an Insider Threat

Never before have there been so many platforms that let a growing number of people touch, manipulate, download, and share sensitive data.

But there’s a dark side to all that access: It exposes a company to malicious intent and theft of information worth thousands, sometimes millions, of dollars. More alarming is the fact that less than half (42 percent) of all organizations have the appropriate controls in place to prevent these attacks, according to the Insider Threat Spotlight Report.

How do you get a handle on this threat? Mitigation begins with assigning risk levels to employee roles. Who has access to sensitive information, intellectual property, trade secrets, customer lists, and any other proprietary data? That’s the foundation of your risk model. Many companies use a simple numerical scale of 1-10, with 10 as the highest risk. Others may prefer simpler categories like Low, Medium, and High or yellow, orange, and red alerts.

It turns out that nearly 80 percent of employee fraud takes place in accounting, operations, sales, senior management, customer service, and purchasing. But it’s critical to establish a risk profile for everyone in the company, no matter which department. Take into account employees’ current roles, levels of privilege, and required access to proprietary information. Senior IT people and C-Suite executives obviously have more privilege and access than mid-level managers and clerical workers. And, of course, the higher the risk in a potential disaster, the greater the need to monitor an employee’s activities.

Prepare to update the risk profile of an individual. Organizations are dynamic, and employees regularly make lateral moves or get promoted. Someone who doesn’t touch sensitive information in one role may very well have access and new privileges in a different assignment.

Employees’ personal lives change constantly, too. A traumatic event, like a death in the family or divorce, psychological problems, or a shift in financial circumstances for the worse—any of these can cause behavioral changes in people. And they all may require re-evaluation of an individual’s level of risk.

Once you’re committed to the process, we recommend taking the following steps:

  1. Create an insider-risk team. While IT and its security team may oversee the monitoring of user activity, the process really requires support from the most senior ranks, as well as other departments. Your legal department help can help decide how to monitor while complying with the law and act as a critical liaison between executives and the security group. Human resources can help support the need and processes for monitoring, as well document employee cases—and put a “human” face on the operation.
  2. Designate risk levels. This, of course, is what I’ve been discussing in this post all along: using job titles to assign a scale of risk, depending on levels of privilege and access.
  3. Pinpoint inappropriate conduct. Just because you’ve assigned someone a high-risk level doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s committing an offense. Conversely, an employee’s inappropriate behavior can sometimes be misread as performance of normal job-related tasks. That’s why it’s critical to develop ways to identify truly improper conduct through changes in an individual’s communication and behavior. You can do that through software that is known as user-behavior analytics and, less technically, by means of procedures your employees can follow to report troublesome behavior.
  4. Set up a system of insider monitoring. When you’re establishing a system to keep an eye on employee activity and behavior, it helps to decide what level of monitoring goes along with the different risks they may pose to your organization. For example, someone in a low-risk category probably can’t interact with sensitive information and therefore needs little more than the less-technical sort of monitoring suggested above. Medium-risk employees do have access to proprietary data and, so, may require monitoring additionally with user-behavior analytics. So, too, with those high-risk individuals who should probably be subject to the most active monitoring and review.

Quantifying risk is just the start of mitigating insider threats. But if you develop the initial baseline—starting with job title and access to privileged information—you can get a better handle on which employees you will have to monitor during such critical periods as hiring, job title and personal changes, and the high-risk exit period.

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