What is internal and external threats?

Defining Internal and External Threats

Internal threats refer to risks that originate from within an organization’s network, systems, or people. These can include accidental data leaks caused by employees, insider theft and fraud, or vulnerabilities in proprietary software and devices [1]. Examples of internal threats include disgruntled employees stealing data, unauthorized access to sensitive systems, and improperly configured firewalls.

External threats arise from outside an organization. These include cyberattacks, malware infections, data breaches by external actors, and natural disasters. Common external threats include distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, phishing attempts, session hijacking, and password attacks that target an organization’s public-facing assets like websites and email systems [2].

Common Internal Threats

Some of the most common internal threats that organizations face include:

Accidental insider threats from employees making mistakes are a major concern. Examples include falling for phishing attacks, misconfiguring access controls, or mishandling sensitive data. According to one report, employee mistakes account for over half of internal security incidents (https://blog.winzip.com/internal-security-threats-examples-and-tips-for-avoiding-them/). Ongoing security awareness training can help reduce accidental insider threats.

Malicious insiders like disgruntled employees can also pose a significant threat. They may steal confidential data before leaving the company, or intentionally sabotage systems. Proper access controls, monitoring, and auditing employee actions can help mitigate this threat.

Data leaks and data loss due to poor security practices are another common internal threat. Employees may unintentionally expose data by sharing it externally or copying it to unauthorized devices. Implementing data loss prevention controls can help prevent sensitive information from leaving the organization (https://www.endpointprotector.com/blog/top-5-internal-data-security-threats-and-how-to-deal-with-them/).

Finally, unauthorized access from employees abusing their privileges or improperly accessing systems is an internal threat. Role-based access controls, least privilege principles, and monitoring for abnormal behavior can help protect against unauthorized insider access.

Common External Threats

External threats originate outside of an organization and its network. Some of the most common external cybersecurity threats include:

Hacking, Malware and Ransomware

Hackers aim to gain unauthorized access to systems and data for malicious purposes like theft or disruption. Malware like viruses, worms, and trojans infect systems and enable hacking. Ransomware is a type of malware that encrypts data until a ransom is paid. According to Dashlane, ransomware attacks increased 148% from 2019 to 2020.

Phishing and Social Engineering

Phishing uses fraudulent communications that appear legitimate to manipulate users into sharing login credentials or sensitive data. Social engineering exploits human psychology to breach security. Phishing is a common social engineering method. Ermprotect notes that 91% of cyberattacks start with a phishing email.

Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) Attacks

DDoS attacks overwhelm systems with traffic to make network resources unavailable. Attackers often use botnets of infected devices to launch large-scale DDoS attacks. The FBI reported a 300% increase in DDoS attacks from 2018 to 2020.

Third Party Vendor Risks

Organizations are increasingly outsourcing functions to third party vendors. However, breaches at vendor organizations can compromise customer data. Proper vendor screening, audits, and contractual protections help mitigate third party cyber risks.

Assessing and Identifying Threats

Organizations can take proactive steps to assess and identify potential internal and external threats. This involves conducting comprehensive risk assessments to understand vulnerabilities and potential attack vectors. As recommended by Source 1, organizations should:

  • Conduct risk assessments to identify critical assets, data, and systems that need protection.
  • Perform vulnerability scans and penetration testing to uncover weaknesses.
  • Monitor systems and network activity to detect anomalies.
  • Review logs and access patterns to spot suspicious behavior.
  • Deploy security tools like SIEMs to correlate events and identify threats.

By taking a proactive stance, organizations can get ahead of threats and respond quickly when issues arise. It’s critical to have visibility into systems, track activity, and understand where vulnerabilities may lie. Risk assessments and ongoing monitoring help achieve this.

Mitigating Internal Threats

There are several best practices organizations can follow to help mitigate insider threats:

Employee training – Comprehensive security awareness training for all employees is critical. Training should cover topics like data handling procedures, how to spot phishing attempts, and rules around accessing sensitive data. Training helps ensure employees understand threats and follow security protocols. According to the CISSP Exam Guide, research shows that well-trained employees are less likely to cause data breaches or fall victim to social engineering attacks (CISSP Exam Guide).

Access controls – Limiting employee access through identity and access management controls can reduce risk. Giving employees least privilege access to only the data and systems they need for their specific job functions is an important mitigation strategy. Strong password policies and multifactor authentication also help secure access. Monitoring who accesses what data and when can detect suspicious activity (Netwrix).

Data encryption – Encrypting sensitive data, both when stored and in transit, helps protect it if there is unauthorized access. Proper key management procedures must be in place. For certain high-risk data, it may make sense to anonymize or redact information that internal employees do not need to see.

Monitoring tools – Deploying user behavior analytics, data loss prevention, and other monitoring tools provides visibility and detects potential insider threats through anomalous activity. Strict access controls combined with monitoring helps catch insider risk before it results in damage.

Mitigating External Threats

There are several key strategies that organizations can employ to help mitigate external cybersecurity threats, including:

Firewalls, antivirus, and malware detection
Installing robust firewalls, antivirus software, and intrusion detection systems can help block many external attacks and malware. Networks should be monitored 24/7 and suspicious activity flagged. Antivirus and antimalware tools should also be continuously updated.

Security audits and penetration testing
– Conducting regular external vulnerability scans, security audits, and penetration testing can help identify potential holes attackers could exploit. Ethical hackers can be employed to safely test systems. Any discovered vulnerabilities or risks should be remediated.

Patch management
– Applying the latest security patches and updates in a timely manner is critical. New patches often address newly discovered vulnerabilities that attackers are looking to exploit.

Multi-factor authentication
– Requiring multi-factor authentication makes it much harder for attackers to access systems using stolen credentials. MFA adds an extra layer of security on top of passwords.

Creating a Security Culture

A strong security culture is essential for protecting an organization against both internal and external threats. This involves establishing cybersecurity as a priority across all levels of the company and promoting vigilance in day-to-day operations.

Training across the organization is key for building a culture of security. Employees should be educated on cybersecurity best practices, such as strong password hygiene, identifying phishing attempts, and reporting suspicious activity. Regular training reminds employees of the role they play in protecting the company. Comprehensive training programs should be mandatory for all employees upon onboarding and be regularly refreshed.

Clear security policies and procedures provide a framework for employees to follow. Policies should cover access controls, acceptable use of company resources, incident response plans, and outline consequences for violations. Procedures help put policies into practice. For example, requiring two-factor authentication for remote access follows a strict access control policy.

Promoting security awareness involves consistent messaging from leadership about the importance of cybersecurity. Creative awareness campaigns with quizzes, games, or contests help reinforce best practices. Awareness programs should communicate real examples of threats to make employees understand their roles in preventing issues. Celebrating security successes, such as identifying phishing emails, promotes engagement across the company.

Incident Response Plans

Having comprehensive incident response plans in place is crucial for organizations to respond effectively to cybersecurity breaches and threats. As noted by Anish James in The importance of an Incident Response Plan (IRP) in today’s landscape, “developing a well-defined incident response plan is essential for helping organizations remain secure in the face of cyber threats.”

Incident response plans outline the procedures and steps to take in the event of a breach or cyberattack. This includes having plans for rapid detection and containment of the incident to limit damage. As TechTarget notes, “swift incident response is essential for minimizing loss and damage.” The plan should designate specific teams or personnel responsible for investigating, containing and remediating incidents.

Another key aspect is having clear notification procedures in place to inform affected parties, including customers, partners, regulators and law enforcement, as applicable. Prompt and transparent communication can help maintain trust and minimize fallout after an incident. As stated in UpGuard’s incident response guidelines, the plan should outline “who needs to be looped in, when and how.”

Regularly testing, updating and refining the incident response plan is important to keep it current. Effective plans can help organizations better prepare for, detect, analyze and recover from cyber threats.

Third Party Risk Management

Companies often rely on third party vendors, partners, and suppliers for critical business functions. However, these relationships can expose organizations to increased cybersecurity risks if the third parties have vulnerable systems or inadequate security controls. Effective third party risk management is essential to mitigate external threats.

When partnering with vendors or service providers, comprehensive due diligence is required during the vetting process to evaluate their cyber risk exposure. This includes examining their security policies, compliance audits, incident history, ransomware preparedness, employee training, and more. Legal and procurement teams must ensure appropriate cybersecurity standards are established through contractual obligations.

Once a third party is onboarded, their access to sensitive data and company systems should be limited only to what is necessary. Ongoing third party risk assessments and continuous monitoring enables detection of any changes that may introduce emerging vulnerabilities over time. With greater reliance on interconnected networks and cloud solutions, organizations need robust frameworks to identify and reduce potential weak links across their digital ecosystem.

Effective third party cyber risk management requires cross-functional collaboration between information security, legal, finance, and vendor management teams. Establishing accountability, cybersecurity hygiene requirements, and plans to mitigate risks enhances resilience from external threats.




Ongoing Vigilance

Given the evolving nature of the cyber threat landscape, ongoing vigilance is imperative for organizations. The types of threats facing companies are constantly shifting as attackers find new vulnerabilities and vectors of attack. As such, organizations cannot afford to become complacent with their defenses. They need to stay attuned to emerging cyber risks and regularly review and update their security policies, controls, and incident response strategies.

To maintain vigilance, organizations should take steps like closely monitoring industry reports of new attack trends and vulnerabilities, performing regular risk assessments, implementing continuous vulnerability scanning and penetration testing, and providing updated security awareness training to employees. Staying informed on the latest threats through threat intelligence services, government advisories, and media reports is also critical. As observed in this article, “Continuous, holistic vigilance is needed across the attack surface.” By persisting in vigilance and not becoming complacent, companies can better adapt their defenses before the next major threat emerges.

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