Federal Insider Threat Programs Prevent Multiple Suicides Each Year

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Experts said suicide prevention has been an unintended byproduct of insider threat programs.

Insider threat programs are designed to protect an agency from detrimental information leaks, whether intentional or accidental. But program managers have noticed another effect: catching the early warning signs of suicide risk.

“We have example after example … of programs that have prevented suicides,” Wayne Belk, director of the National Insider Threat Task Force under the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said at Nextgov’s Combating the Insider Threat event Aug. 7. “And not just one in a decade. There are agencies that have picked out numerous people throughout a year and stopped them from either hurting themselves or hurting other people.”

Belk declined to go into specifics on the number of potential suicide attempts prevented by agency insider threat programs, citing privacy issues. But he said this ability to truly help employees in need has been a great side effect of programs that so often are focused on identifying the worst in people.

If an insider threat program is set up correctly, this is a feature, not a bug, Belk said.

“None of us is working in a fully automated organization. So, our people are our most valuable asset,” he said. “If you’re not building your program in a way that benefits your workforce and helps them—keeps them out of trouble, keeps them off that critical path to disaster—then you’ve got a failed program.”

And making that clear to employees helps the insider threat program, as well.

“It’s up to us to make it as easy as possible for employees to step outside of their comfort zone and make that difficult decision to come forward and maybe talk to a member of security or their leadership or human resources and say that they’ve noticed something,” said Kimberley O’Grady, an intelligence analyst in Lockheed Martin’s Office of Counterintelligence Operations and Corporate Investigations. Hesitant employees are more likely to report their colleagues’ suspicious behavior if they are worried about their safety, rather than just the safety of the agency’s data.

“I think if they understand that this might not be just—and I use that word very lightly—somebody that’s considering theft of trade secrets, economic or industrial espionage, something like that, but an employee who might also be considering coming back into the workplace and hurting other people or going home and hurting themselves … It makes it the easiest possible scenario for someone to come forward,” O’Grady said.