The role of access controls in preventing insider threats

April 3, 2024  |  Devin Partida

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If you’ve ever worked in an IT department, you know how easily a single misclick can lead to data breaches and system compromises. Preventive efforts are critical since there’s no reliable way to truly eliminate insider threats. Can robust access controls protect your organization?

The impact of insider threats on organizations

Insider threats are a prominent danger regardless of the industry you’re in. In fact, 98% of U.S. organizations report being slightly to extremely vulnerable to them. This figure reveals how many are unconfident in their existing deterrents, highlighting the importance of preventative efforts.

Even if you don’t believe anyone at your workplace would intentionally cause damage, you should still be wary — insider threats aren’t always malicious. Negligent employees are responsible for 60% of data breaches, meaning carelessness is a more common driver.

Unfortunately, the fact that negligence is the primary driver of insider threat attacks isn’t a good thing — it means a single misclick could put your entire organization at risk. Robust access controls are among the best solutions to this situation since they can prevent careless employees from leaking data or unintentionally escalating an attacker’s permissions.

Access control mechanisms are crucial for threat mitigation

The main way robust access control mechanisms are crucial for addressing insider threats is through unauthorized access mitigation. Employees, whether acting negligently or with ill intent, won’t be able to do any damage to your organization when their permissions limit them from retrieving or editing sensitive data storage systems.

No matter how long you’ve spent in the IT department, you know how irresponsible some employees are when dealing with sensitive data, intellectual property or identifiable details. Access control mechanisms keep information assets out of reach of most of the people in your organization, safeguarding them from being tampered with or exfiltrated.

If an attacker successfully enters your organization’s systems or network, robust access control mechanisms restrict their lateral movement. Since they aren’t authorized personnel, they aren’t granted meaningful permissions. This act minimizes the damage they can do and prevents them from compromising anything else.

Even if an attacker has one of your colleague’s lost or stolen devices, access controls block them from being able to do anything meaningful. Authentication measures prevent them from accessing your organization’s systems and exfiltrating sensitive data. It also helps keep them from escalating their privileges, minimizing their impact.

With robust access control mechanisms, you can quickly identify indicators of compromise (IOCs) to stop threats before they become an issue. For example, spotting concurrent logins on a single user account means an attacker is using legitimate credentials, indicating a brute force, phishing or keylogging attack.

Which access control systems should you implement?

Although insider threats pose an issue regardless of your industry or organization’s size, you can find ways to prevent them from doing any damage. You should consider implementing access control systems to detect and deter unauthorized action, mitigating data breaches and system compromises.

A standard system to consider is the principle of least privilege, as it safeguards your organization by providing employees with the bare minimum permissions to do their jobs. You can redirect your resources toward high-value targets with broader access.

You should also consider implementing real-time log monitoring to identify and eliminate threats as soon as they appear. This approach provides details on every request a user makes — like its source and destination, for example — for improved detection of IOCs.

Whichever combination of access control systems you implement, make sure to leverage permission maintenance procedures. When you clear inactive user accounts, you prevent attackers from silently slipping into your organization’s systems unnoticed. Also, you prevent them from using an unrestricted test account to escalate their privileges.

The importance of integrating user behavior analytics

As the value of data rises, insider threats increase in frequency. In fact, seven in 10 organizations believe these attacks are becoming more common. While consistently preventing them may seem adequate to you, it isn’t enough. You must identify and eliminate the source if you want a more permanent solution.

Logs alone can’t provide insights into who the insider threat actually is. If you want specifics, behavior analytics is one of the best tools. Using it to elevate your access control mechanisms will help you pinpoint and respond to suspicious activity more effectively.

When you integrate behavior analytics into access control tools, you can compare the logs of their actions to previous cybersecurity incidents. In other words, you can identify the insider threat’s goal, enhancing your incident response.

Behavior analytics can reveal when user accounts are compromised, even when activity appears legitimate at first glance. This approach helps you flag hidden abnormal activity patterns that don’t align with a person’s or device’s usual actions. From there, you can tell whether they’re acting maliciously or carelessly. Either way, you eliminate the source of the threat.

Accelerating your threat identification and response time improves your business outcomes and minimizes your organization’s losses. When you implement robust access control systems, your chance of preventing data breaches and mitigating system compromises increases.

Eliminate insider threats with robust access controls

Since insider threats will likely remain an issue regardless of new hiring protocols or online safety awareness campaigns, it’s in your best interest to be proactive and leverage access controls. You can detect and prevent IOCs before they do damage, safeguarding your organization from data breaches, user account takeovers and system compromises.

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