Mapping the motives of insider threats

Insider threats can take many forms, from the absent-minded employee failing to follow basic security protocols, to the malicious insider, intentionally seeking to harm your organization.

motives insider threats

Some threats may stem from a simple mistake, others from a personal vendetta. Some insiders will work alone, others at the behest of a competitor or nation-state.

Whatever the method and the motives, the results can be devastating. The average cost of a single negligent insider incident exceeds $300k. That figures increases to over $755k for a criminal or malicious attack and up to $871k for one involving credential theft.

Unlike many other common attacks, insider attacks are rarely a smash-and-grab. The longer a threat goes undetected, the more damage it can do to your organization. The better you understand your people – their motivations, and their relationship with your data and networks – the earlier you can detect and contain potential threats.

Insiders’ drivers

Insider threats can be loosely split into two categories – negligent and malicious. Within those categories are a range of potential drivers.

As the mechanics of an attack can differ significantly depending on its motives, gaining a thorough understanding of these drivers can be the difference between a potential threat and a successful breach.

Financial gain

Financial gain is perhaps the most common driver for the malicious insider. Employees across all levels are aware that corporate data and sensitive information has value.

To an employee with access to your data, allowing it to fall into the wrong hands can seem like minimal risk for significant reward.
This is another threat that is likely higher risk in the current environment. The coronavirus pandemic has placed millions of people under financial pressure, with many furloughed or facing job insecurity. What once seemed an unimaginable decision, may now feel like a quick solution.


Negligence is the most common cause of insider threats, costing organizations an average of $4.58 million per year.

Such a threat usually results from poor security hygiene – a failure to properly log in/out of corporate systems, writing down or reusing passwords, using unauthorized devices or applications, and a failure to protect company data.

Negligent insiders are often repeat offenders who may skirt round security for greater speed, increased productivity or just convenience.


A distracted employee could fall into the “negligent” category. However, it is worth highlighting separately as this type of threat can be harder to spot.

Where negligent employees may raise red flags by regularly ignoring security best practices, the distracted insider may be a model employee until the moment they make a mistake.

The risk of distraction is potentially higher right now, with most employees working remotely, many for the first time, often interchanging between work and personal applications. Outside of the formal office environment and distracted by home life, they may have different work patterns, be more relaxed and inclined to click on malicious links or bypass formal security conventions.

Organizational damage

Some malicious insiders have no interest in personal gain. Their sole driver is harming your organization.

The headlines are full of stories about the devastating impact of data breaches. For anyone wishing to damage an organization’s reputation or revenues, there is no better way in the digital world than by leaking sensitive customer data.

Insiders with this motivation will usually have a grievance against your business. They may have been looked over for a pay rise or promotion, or recently subject to disciplinary action.

Espionage and sabotage

Malicious insiders do not always work alone. In some cases, they may be passing information to a third-party such as a competitor or a nation-state.

Such cases tend to fall under espionage or sabotage. This could mean a competitor recruiting a plant in your organization to syphon out intellectual property, R&D, or customer information to gain an edge, or a nation-state looking for government secrets or classified information to destabilize another.

Cases like these are on the increase in recent years. Hackers and plants from Russia, China, and North Korea are regularly implicated in cases of corporate and state-sponsored insider attacks against Western organizations.

Defending from within

Just as they affect method, motives also dictate the appropriate response. An effective deterrent against negligence is unlikely to deter a committed and sophisticated insider intent on causing harm to your organization.

That said, the foundation for any defense is comprehensive controls. You must have total visibility of your networks – who is using them and what data they are accessing. These controls should be leveraged to limit sensitive information to only the most privileged users and to strictly limit the transfer of data from company systems.

With this broad base in place, you can now add further layers to counter specific threats. To protect against disgruntled employees, for example, additional protections could include filters on company communications to flag high-risk vocabulary, and specific controls applied to high-risk individuals, such as those who have been disciplined or are soon to be leaving the company.

Finally, any successful defense against insider threats should have your people at its heart.

You must create a strong security culture. This means all users must be aware of how their behavior can unintentionally put your organization at risk. All must know how to spot early signs of potential threats, whatever the cause. And all must be aware of the severe consequences of intentionally putting your organization in harm’s way.

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