Threats to an organization can come from both inside and outside the organization. Internal threats originate from within the organization, while external threats come from outside sources. Understanding the difference between internal and external threats is important for implementing effective information security practices.
What are internal threats?
Internal threats are dangers that originate from within an organization. These threats often come from employees or contractors who have access to the organization’s systems and data. Some examples of internal threats include:
- Disgruntled employees – Employees who are unhappy with their job or the organization may intentionally cause harm.
- Careless employees – Well-meaning employees may accidentally expose sensitive data or damage systems due to carelessness.
- Malicious insiders – Insiders with malicious intent may steal data, infect systems with malware, or sabotage operations.
- Unauthorized access – Employees may access confidential data without proper authorization out of curiosity or for personal gain.
- Data leaks – Sensitive data can be leaked intentionally or accidentally through email, portable drives, or other means.
- Misuse of assets – Using company resources such as computers or internet for unauthorized personal gain.
Internal threats are especially dangerous because insiders have authorized access and knowledge that external parties do not. Insiders often know where the “crown jewels” are stored and how to navigate around security controls. According to a 2020 report from Verizon, 30% of breaches involved internal actors.
What are the major categories of internal threats?
Internal threats can be grouped into three major categories:
1. Malicious insiders
These are employees or contractors who intentionally misuse access or damage the organization. Examples include stealing confidential data to sell to competitors, destroying data, or sabotaging systems.
2. Compromised insiders
Compromised insiders have their access credentials stolen by external parties to gain unauthorized access. Their accounts may be compromised through phishing attacks, malware infections, or stolen credentials being sold on the dark web.
3. Unintentional insiders
These employees or contractors unintentionally expose data or systems to risk through actions such as:
- Accidentally emailing sensitive data to the wrong recipient
- Losing laptops or mobile devices containing confidential information
- Accidentally posting passwords or other secrets on social media or public sites
- Failing to update software or apply patches, leaving vulnerabilities open
- Re-using passwords across systems, allowing credentials stolen on one system to access others
Common internal threat sources
Some of the most common sources of internal threats include:
These are users with elevated access such as system administrators, network engineers, and database administrators. Their high-level access allows them to cause extensive damage through malicious actions.
Employees and contractors using systems and data as part of their regular duties may expose vulnerabilities through careless or unauthorized usage.
Ex-employees who still have active credentials or backdoor access pose a threat since access may not have been revoked when they left the company.
Consultants, contractors, and other third-party vendors with inside access can potentially misuse privileges.
Developers with access to source code repositories or databases containing sensitive data may leak or steal information.
Common internal attack vectors
Some of the most common methods used in internal attacks include:
- Unauthorized system and data access
- Phishing and social engineering
- Malware infections
- Physical theft of devices and assets
- Backdoor access through hardcoded credentials
- Database breaches and manipulation
- Source code theft or tampering
Potential impacts of internal threats
Internal threats can severely damage organizations if not managed properly. Potential impacts include:
- Data breaches leading to information leaks
- Intellectual property theft
- System downtime and business disruptions
- Financial fraud
- Regulatory non-compliance and legal liability
- Reputation damage and loss of customer trust
How to identify internal threats
Some techniques used to identify potential internal threats include:
- Conducting thorough background checks on employees and contractors
- Monitoring user activity and system access
- Implementing access controls and segregation of duties
- Watching for suspicious insider behavior and policy violations
- Analyzing logs for abnormal activity
- Deploying data loss prevention tools
How to mitigate internal threats
Organizations can reduce risks from internal threats through strategies such as:
- Implementing least privilege access
- Encouraging a culture of security awareness
- Swiftly disabling access for employees who leave the company
- Enforcing strong password policies and multifactor authentication
- Encrypting sensitive data at rest and in transit
- Using data loss prevention systems
- Monitoring user activity for suspicious behavior
- Providing secure data backup and recovery
What are external threats?
External threats originate from outside an organization. These may include both threats from people seeking to infiltrate systems or natural disasters impacting operations. Some common external threats include:
- Hackers – Individual attackers or crime groups trying to steal data, cause disruptions, or spread malware for financial gain or ideological reasons.
- Cybercriminals – Sophisticated organized crime groups who hack systems to steal money or sensitive data.
- Activist groups – Hacktivists hacking to make political statements or protest corporate policies.
- State-sponsored attackers – Foreign governments stealing confidential data for espionage or intellectual property theft.
- Malware – Viruses, worms, Trojans, spyware, and other malicious code that can damage systems or expose data.
- Ransomware – Malware that encrypts data until ransom is paid.
- Phishing – Deceptive emails and sites that trick users into revealing credentials or sensitive data.
- Social engineering – Manipulating people into providing confidential information or performing damaging actions.
- Supply chain attacks – Compromising software or hardware vendors to attack their customers.
- Denial-of-service (DoS) attacks – Flooding systems with traffic to cause outages.
- Natural disasters – Events like fires, floods, and power outages that damage infrastructure.
Common external attack vectors
External attacks often use the following entry points or techniques:
- Phishing emails with malicious links or attachments
- Exploiting vulnerabilities in public-facing applications and networks
- Using stolen credentials from past data breaches for lateral movement
- Malvertising or compromising trusted websites to spread malware
- Social engineering through platforms like phone, email, or social media
- Physical theft of devices, storage media, and documents containing sensitive data
- Targeting weak points in the supply chain to reach customers
- Direct attacks on physical infrastructure like bridges or power grids
Potential impacts of external threats
If adequate cybersecurity defenses are not in place, external threats can wreak havoc on organizations. Some potential impacts include:
- Stolen customer data, financial information, intellectual property, and trade secrets.
- Disabled or damaged systems, affecting business operations.
- Fraud through stolen financial and personal information.
- Ransomware locking up critical data and systems.
- Loss of customer goodwill, brand reputation, and competitive edge.
- Regulatory non-compliance and legal liability if data is breached.
- National security risks from state-sponsored attacks stealing sensitive data.
How to identify external threats
Organizations can identify and anticipate external threats through efforts like:
- Monitoring hacker forums, social media, and the dark web for threats targeting the organization or industry.
- Conducting penetration testing and vulnerability assessments to find weaknesses.
- Using threat intelligence services to identify emerging and targeted threats.
- Analyzing logs and network activity for signs of compromise from external parties.
- Implementing honeypots and other deception tools to study attacker behavior.
- Encouraging responsible information sharing on threats within industry groups.
How to mitigate external threats
A multi-layered defense can help secure systems against external threats:
- Keep systems patched and updated to close vulnerabilities.
- Install antivirus/anti-malware tools to detect and block malware.
- Deploy firewalls and filtering to block unauthorized network traffic.
- Use threat intelligence to stay updated on emerging threats.
- Filter and sandbox incoming emails to stop phishing attacks.
- Train employees on social engineering and phishing prevention.
- Use strong passwords and multifactor authentication.
- Encrypt sensitive data to make it useless if stolen.
- Monitor systems for signs of potential compromise from external parties.
Comparing internal vs. external threats
While both internal and external threats present risks to an organization, there are some key differences between the two:
|Basis||Internal Threats||External Threats|
|Origin||From within the organization||Outside the organization|
|Motive||Personal gain, revenge, accidental||Hacking for challenge or prestige, cybercrime for profit, espionage, hacktivism|
|Access||Authorized access makes attacks easier||Must gain access from outside through vulnerabilities|
|Detection||More difficult to detect familiar internal actors||Signatures and behavior patterns may reveal external attackers|
|Damage potential||Understanding of sensitive systems allows greater damage||Less knowledge limits damage capability|
|Prevalence||Less common than external threats||External attacks are much more common|
While distinct in some ways, internal and external threats are also frequently interconnected:
- External attackers may recruit or deceive insiders to help their attacks.
- Compromised insiders may have their access exploited by external parties.
- Insiders may attack systems to cover tracks when selling data.
- Disgruntled insiders may collaborate with outside hackers for revenge.
Defenses therefore need to consider blended attacks that bridge internal and external threats.
Building a robust cybersecurity program
Organizations need a cybersecurity program defending against both inside and outside threats. Key elements include:
- Security awareness training to educate all employees on policies and threats.
- Vulnerability and penetration testing to find weaknesses.
- Access controls, multifactor authentication, and encryption to secure sensitive resources.
- Monitoring systems and network activity to detect anomalous behaviors.
- Incident response plans to contain damages from security events.
- Policies restricting data access, device use, and acceptable online behaviors.
- Physical security controls to prevent unauthorized physical access.
Addressing both internal and external threats is crucial for robust enterprise security. Internal threats take advantage of authorized access while external threats penetrate from outside. Overlaps between insiders and outsiders are also common during attacks. Organizations need layered defenses combining technology, policies, and training to protect against blended threats. A comprehensive program builds resilience against both malicious insiders and external threat actors.