The Threat Within: Understanding Employee-Generated Cybersecurity Risks

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As the digital landscape continues to expand, businesses face an increasing number of cybersecurity threats. As leading cybersecurity consultants for a wide range of businesses, we see them increase in number and scope every day. 

While most of these threats come from external sources, such as hackers and cybercriminals, companies must also be aware of the internal threats that their own employees can pose.

Employee-related cybersecurity threats can take many forms, ranging from accidental actions that compromise data to deliberate attacks by disgruntled or financially motivated insiders. Regardless of the motivation, these threats can have serious consequences, including data breaches, financial losses, and damage to the company’s reputation.

In this article, we’ll explore some of the ways that employees can pose cybersecurity threats to businesses and provide some tips on how to mitigate these risks.

Insider Threats

Insider threats are one of the most significant cybersecurity risks that businesses face. These threats come from employees or contractors who have access to sensitive company data and systems and can intentionally or unintentionally cause harm to the company’s digital assets.

Malicious insider threats are a particularly significant concern, as these employees have insider knowledge of the company’s security measures and can use this knowledge to bypass them. For example, a disgruntled employee could steal sensitive data, install malware, or damage systems to cause disruption to the company’s operations.

Here are some tips on how to minimize insider cybersecurity threats in the workplace:

Implement strong access controls

One of the best ways to minimize insider cybersecurity threats is to implement strong access controls. This includes limiting the number of employees who have access to sensitive data and systems based on job responsibilities.

Access controls can also include requiring strong passwords, implementing two-factor authentication, and using encryption to protect data. By limiting access to sensitive data and systems, businesses can reduce the likelihood of an insider threat occurring.

Conduct regular security awareness training

Another effective way to minimize insider cybersecurity threats is to conduct regular security awareness training for employees. This training should cover topics such as the risks of cyber threats, how to recognize and report suspicious activity, and best practices for data security.

By educating employees on the importance of cybersecurity and how to recognize and prevent threats, businesses can help create a culture of cybersecurity awareness in the workplace.

Monitor employee activity

Monitoring employee activity can help detect and prevent insider cybersecurity threats. This can include monitoring employee access to sensitive data and systems, monitoring email and internet usage, and tracking file transfers.

While monitoring employee activity can be a sensitive issue, it can be an effective way to detect and prevent insider threats. However, it’s important to balance the need for monitoring with employee privacy and legal requirements.

Implement incident response plans

Having an incident response plan in place can help minimize the impact of insider cybersecurity threats. This plan should include procedures for identifying, containing, and mitigating the effects of an insider threat.

Incident response plans should also include procedures for notifying appropriate parties, such as IT staff, legal counsel, and law enforcement, if necessary.

Foster a positive workplace culture

Finally, fostering a positive workplace culture can help minimize the risk of insider cybersecurity threats. This includes creating an environment of trust and transparency, providing opportunities for employees to report concerns or suspicious activity, and ensuring that employees feel valued and respected.

By creating a positive workplace culture, businesses can help reduce the likelihood of disgruntled employees or those motivated by financial gain to engage in insider threats.

Phishing Attacks

Phishing attacks are a common type of cyberattack that rely on social engineering tactics to trick employees into revealing sensitive information or clicking on malicious links. These attacks often take the form of emails or text messages that appear to come from a legitimate source, such as a coworker, vendor, or customer.

Phishing attacks can be particularly effective against employees who are not trained to recognize the signs of a phishing email. Once an employee clicks on a malicious link or enters their login credentials on a fake login page, the attacker can gain access to sensitive data and systems.

To protect against phishing attacks, companies should provide regular security awareness training to employees that covers the signs of a phishing email, such as misspellings, unfamiliar sender addresses, and urgent requests for action. Additionally, companies should implement email filtering software that can detect and block phishing emails before they reach employees’ inboxes.

Weak Passwords

Weak passwords are another common cybersecurity threat that can be caused by employees, but it’s one that is frequently overlooked because it seems so obvious. 

Many employees use weak or easily guessable passwords, such as “123456” or “password,” which can be easily cracked by hackers.

Additionally, employees may use the same password for multiple accounts, which can increase the risk of a data breach. If a hacker gains access to an employee’s password through a data breach or other means, they can use this password to access multiple accounts and steal sensitive data.

Password security is a critical aspect of any company’s cybersecurity strategy, as weak or compromised passwords can put sensitive data and systems at risk. Educating employees about password security and enforcing a password policy is an essential step in mitigating this risk.

Here are some tips on how to educate employees about password security and enforce a password policy effectively:

Develop a clear and comprehensive password policy

The first step in enforcing password security is to develop a clear and comprehensive password policy that outlines the minimum requirements for password strength and complexity. The policy should cover topics such as password length, complexity, expiration, and reuse.

The policy should be communicated clearly to all employees, and they should be required to acknowledge and sign it before being granted access to sensitive data and systems. This will help ensure that employees are aware of their responsibilities when it comes to password security.

Provide regular training and reminders

Employees should receive regular training and reminders about password security to reinforce the importance of creating strong and secure passwords. Training should cover topics such as password best practices, the dangers of weak passwords, and the risks of password reuse.

Reminders can be sent through email or posted on company intranets or bulletin boards. These reminders should emphasize the importance of strong passwords and provide guidance on how to create and manage them effectively.

Implement two-factor authentication

Two-factor authentication (2FA) is an effective way to add an extra layer of security to passwords. 2FA requires users to provide an additional form of identification, such as a code sent to their phone, to access sensitive data and systems.

Implementing 2FA can help prevent unauthorized access to company data and systems, even if an employee’s password is compromised. It also encourages employees to create stronger passwords, as they know that an additional layer of protection is in place.

Use password managers

Password managers are tools that help users create, store, and manage complex passwords securely. They can also generate and suggest new passwords, making it easier for employees to comply with the company’s password policy.

By using password managers, employees can avoid the temptation to use weak or easily guessable passwords. They can also save time by not having to remember multiple passwords for different accounts.

Regularly audit and enforce password policy

Finally, it’s important to regularly audit and enforce the company’s password policy to ensure compliance. This can include conducting regular password audits to identify weak or compromised passwords and requiring employees to change their passwords if they do not meet the minimum requirements.

Enforcement should also include consequences for noncompliance, such as revoking access to sensitive data and systems or taking disciplinary action against repeat offenders.

Unauthorized Devices

Many employees use their own devices, such as laptops, smartphones, and tablets, to access company data and systems. While this can be convenient for employees, it can also pose a significant cybersecurity risk if these devices are not properly secured.

Employees may use insecure or outdated software, fail to update their devices regularly, or connect to unsecured networks, all of which can increase the risk of a data breach. Additionally, employees may download malicious software or inadvertently infect their devices with malware, which can spread to the company’s network.

As more workplaces adopt a remote or hybrid setup for employees, the use of network connected devices is now usually a must. And when it comes to being available via phone or laptop, often the devices are indeed the employees own, as they are presented with no other choice. 

The obvious answer here is one that some businesses do not always like when we, as cybersecurity consultants, present it to them. To better safeguard against cybersecurity risks posed by unauthorized devices, businesses should not allow them to be used. They should provide company phones, laptops, etc. that can be heavily monitored. 

The reality is that the vast majority of SMBs will struggle to do that, from a purely financial point of view. However, those who try to regulate employee devices—via registration or monitoring—as we have seen some firms try in the past, is fraught with problems. 

Not only are privacy concerns raised when trying to require employees to register their personal devices to a business’ network, but it will, in reality, also lead to a lot of pushback from the employees, who are, after all, paying for the devices the company is asking for access to. 

Instead of trying to force this invasive strategy on employees who are asked to BYOD, businesses should train and support employees on how to keep their personal devices and company data safe. They should also give employees access to IT support for any problems with their devices or security concerns. This will help ensure that employees are equipped to secure their devices and company data effectively.

In conclusion, employee-generated cybersecurity risks are a serious concern for businesses of all sizes. Whether it’s a well-intentioned employee who accidentally leaks sensitive information or a malicious insider with a grudge, a cybersecurity breach can have devastating effects. 

To protect your business from these risks, it’s important to be proactive about cybersecurity. This means putting in place strong access controls, giving regular security awareness training, monitoring employee activity, putting in place incident response plans, and fostering a positive workplace culture. However, even with these measures in place, it’s still possible for cyberthreats to slip through the cracks. That’s where cybersecurity consulting can help. 

By working with a cybersecurity consulting firm like Pearl Lemon Consultants, businesses can gain access to the expertise and resources needed to identify and mitigate cyber risks before they become a problem. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help protect your business from employee-generated cybersecurity risks, as well as the many other threats you face from those acting outside your organization.