Happy Insider Threat Awareness Month!

In 2016, Edward Snowden via video from Moscow speaks at the launch of a campaign calling on President Obama to pardon him.

In 2016, Edward Snowden via video from Moscow speaks at the launch of a campaign calling on President Obama to pardon him. Dennis Van Tine/STAR MAX/IPx

Insider threats are potentially far more dangerous than those attacking from outside.

It seems like everything under the sun has a full month now where we are either supposed to study the concept, raise awareness about a subject, respectfully think about a topic or simply celebrate something as much as possible during a month-long party. Some of these month-long observances are quite serious like Breast Cancer Awareness Month (October) or Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month (January). Some are simply interesting like National Pet Month (May) or National Novel Writing Month (November). And some are just silly or fun like National Bird-Feeding Month (February), the Air Force’s Mustache March (March) or the supremely important National Ice Cream Month (June).

So it was not all that surprising when the National Counterintelligence and Security Center and the National Insider Threat Task Force announced that they were partnering with federal agencies to declare September the National Insider Threat Awareness Month. There are lots of exercises and activities planned across the government in September with the goal of educating federal employees about the risk that insider threats pose, as well as some of the telltale behaviors to look out for in fellow feds who may be close to crossing that line.

Insider threats are some of the most difficult to discover because they involve employees who have already been vetted and assigned security clearances suddenly acting against their agency. Probably the most infamous example of an insider threat in modern times is Edward Snowden, a contractor who collected classified information and then burned his colleagues at the National Security Agency in the summer of 2013. Snowden revealed many agency secrets before fleeing to Russia to avoid prosecution. Although the Oliver Stone movie about the incident portrayed Snowden as a disillusioned patriot, Chris Inglis, former deputy director of the NSA, told a different version of events when I interviewed him for Nextgov a few years later.

What is not in dispute is the fact that Snowden was a system administrator at the NSA. He used his credentials to access systems that he had no responsibility for and recorded classified data that he later distributed. Even though Executive Order 13,587 was issued in 2011 to require agencies to create an insider threat program, efforts were not yet mature enough to detect Snowden a couple of years later. Currently, there are a few dedicated insider threat software platforms that probably could have quickly detected his suspicious activities.

The very public example of an insider threat at the NSA may lead people to believe that only government agencies with classified data are in danger, and then only by agents of foreign nation-states—which many now suspect Snowden was all along. But any organization is potentially in danger of malicious insider actions, including both government agencies and civilian companies. 

“All organizations are vulnerable to insider threats from employees who may use their authorized access to facilities, personnel or information to harm their organizations—intentionally or unintentionally,” said NCSC Director William Evanina in a statement about the Insider Threat Month activities. “The harm can range from negligence, such as failing to secure data or clicking on a spear-phishing link, to malicious activities like theft, sabotage, espionage, unauthorized disclosure of classified information or even violence.”

And sadly, insider threats may be on the rise, as those who have a predisposition to dishonorable activities, or those with problems like a drug habit or gambling debt, may now be acutely aware that either the information or the access they possess is valuable. The 2019 Insider Threat Report from Cybersecurity Insiders bears this out, with 70% of respondents saying they are seeing more insider threat dangers. A surprising 60% said they had already been attacked by a formerly trusted insider over the past 12 months.

In addition to spycraft types of attacks, organizations are also seeing the theft of intellectual property in greater numbers. There is also an uptick in crimes such as important data being collected and sold to competitors, or simply having employees sell their passwords to let hackers get past gateway or perimeter security.

The ultimate goal of Insider Threat Month is to help organizations within both the government and private sectors set up good defenses against insider threats. “Most insider threats display concerning behaviors before engaging in negative events,” Evanina said. “Our objective is to help government and corporate organizations get ahead of the problem by bolstering their insider threat programs so they can detect, engage and assist at-risk employees before they go down the wrong path.”

Insider threats are potentially far more dangerous than those attacking from outside. Good cybersecurity maturity and robust defenses can stop or mitigate most external threats before they can do serious damage. It’s a lot harder to avoid getting stabbed in the back by someone who was thought to be trustworthy. So it’s a good thing that Insider Threats are getting their own month now to raise awareness about those dangers. I just hope it doesn’t take too much emphasis away from National Bourbon Heritage Month, which now must share September. Cheers!


John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology. He is the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys