Unintentional Insider Threats: The Overlooked Risk

Unintentional Insider Threat

Could your employees be unintentionally putting your business at risk? While companies prioritize protection against external cyber threats, the often-overlooked unintentional insider threats can lead to significant financial and reputational risks for your business.

These threats can come from simple human errors, such as accidental data sharing, misconfigurations, or falling victim to phishing attacks. In this article, we’ll get into what an unintentional insider threat is, check out real-world examples, and share strategies you can use to prevent them.

What is an Unintentional Insider Threat?

An unintentional insider threat, also known as an accidental insider threat, is a risk posed by employees, contractors, or associates who, without malicious intent, compromise organizational security through employee negligence, errors, or lack of awareness. These individuals don’t mean harm, but their mistakes or lack of knowledge can lead to problems. This term is often used in the context of cybersecurity to refer to the unintentional actions or behaviors of individuals within an organization that can lead to security breaches or other security incidents.

For example, they might expose sensitive data, fall for phishing scams, set up security settings incorrectly, or misuse their access privileges. Unlike malicious insiders, who intentionally seek to harm the organization, these threats come from human error or poor security incident training, making them harder to predict and stop. It’s important to note that while the motivations may differ, both types of insider threats can have equally damaging effects on your organization’s security.

Examples of Unintentional Insider Threats

Unintentional insider threats can come in many forms, each posing a risk to your company’s security. By properly understanding these examples, businesses can better prepare for these threats and create strategies to mitigate risks.

Let’s explore some common unintentional insider threat examples that can occur:

Accidental Data Leaks

Accidental data leaks happen when employees unintentionally expose sensitive information, often due to simple mistakes or lack of awareness. These leaks can occur in various ways, such as sending emails to the wrong person, misconfiguring security settings on cloud storage, or accidentally sharing confidential documents in public forums.

For example, an employee might attach the wrong file to an email, revealing sensitive information to an outside party. These insider incidents usually result from a lack of proper training or understanding of data handling procedures.

Falling Victim to Social Engineering

Falling victim to social engineering tactics happens when legitimate users are tricked into giving away sensitive information or doing things that compromise security. These insider attacks, like phishing emails, fake phone calls, or impersonation, play on human psychology instead of technical weaknesses.

For example, a scammer might pretend to be a trusted coworker or business partner to gain access to systems, important data, or business operations. This can be a problem, especially if current employees aren’t aware or trained enough to spot and deal with social engineering attacks.

Configuration Errors

Configuration errors happen when employees or IT staff unintentionally set up systems or applications incorrectly, creating security weaknesses. These mistakes can occur when setting up software, networks, or other critical assets, often due to simple oversight or lack of know-how.

Examples include leaving default passwords in place, mismanaging access controls, or setting up firewalls incorrectly. A misconfigured firewall might leave important ports open, or incorrect cloud settings could let unauthorized people access sensitive data. These errors can create security gaps that bad actors can exploit, leading to data breaches or malicious threats.

Shadow IT

Shadow IT is when employees use unapproved software, hardware, or cloud services without approval or informing the IT department. They usually do this to get their work done faster or more easily, but it can bypass security measures and create unintentional threats.

For instance, an employee might use an unauthorized file-sharing service to work with someone outside the company, which could expose sensitive data. Shadow IT can cause data breaches, intellectual property theft, compliance problems and make IT management more complicated.

Human Error

Human error is a common cause of unintentional insider threats, where employees make mistakes that harm security. These can include accidentally sending sensitive information to the wrong recipient, clicking on scam links, or misplacing confidential documents. Human error is a broad term that encompasses a wide range of unintentional actions or behaviors that can lead to security incidents. It’s important to understand the different types of human error and their potential impact on your organization’s security.

These types of insider threats often occur because of insufficient employee training, lack of focus, or stressful work conditions. To reduce human error, companies should have thorough cybersecurity training programs, clear procedures, and tech solutions to help prevent these slip-ups.

BYOD Security Risks

BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) security risks arise when employees use their personal devices for work purposes. Personal devices might not meet the company’s security standards, leading to problems like weak encryption, outdated software, or poor access controls. These gaps can make sensitive data vulnerable to hackers.

For example, an employee’s phone might not be updated with the latest security patches or could be connected to unsafe networks, making it easier to steal data.

Misuse of Privileges

Misuse of privileges happens when employees with special access rights use their permissions inappropriately. This could mean that someone with privileged access is looking at sensitive data without permission or making unauthorized changes to systems.

Some employees might look at confidential data that has nothing to do with their job just out of curiosity or move sensitive info to unsecure places. These issues often result from a lack of strict insider access controls or proper employee monitoring. To stop this malicious activity and minimize potential insider risks, companies should only give access to what’s really necessary.

Unauthorized Disclosure of Credentials

Unauthorized disclosure of credentials happens when employees unintentionally or carelessly share their login information, such as usernames and passwords, with unauthorized individuals. This can occur through phishing scams, poor password habits, or simply sharing credentials with coworkers.

For instance, an authorized user might be tricked by a phishing email and give their login details to a scammer without realizing it.

Lack of Security Training

When properly trained to spot and handle security threats, employees become the first line of defense against unintentional insider threats. Their vigilance can prevent mistakes that put the company at cybersecurity risk, making them crucial in maintaining its security.

Without good security training, employees don’t stay updated on new threats and don’t understand why security rules matter. This ignorance can lead to a laid-back approach to security vulnerabilities, making the company an easy target for cyberattacks even if you don’t have malicious insiders.

Failing to Dispose of Sensitive Information

When employees don’t follow proper procedures for disposing of documents, unusual files, digital assets, or hardware containing confidential data, this information can fall into the wrong hands.

This can happen if they throw away documents without shredding them, don’t wipe data from old devices before getting rid of them, or forget to securely delete files from shared drives.

How to Prevent Unintentional Insider Threats

Preventing unintentional insider threats requires proactive measures that combine security policies, training, and technology. With these measures, companies can significantly reduce the insider risk of accidental security breaches.

Below, we’ll check out some key strategies to prevent unintentional insider threats:

Create a Data Handling Policy

This policy should clearly define how sensitive information should be collected, processed, stored, and disposed of within the organization. With clearly outlined steps, high-risk users and employees will know how to handle data correctly, which reduces the cyber security risk of accidental leaks or mistakes.

The policy should also include specific guidelines for different types of data and common insider threats. Finally, remember to provide regular training and updates to the policy, which are necessary to keep up with new threats and changes in technology.

Provide Security Training

Comprehensive training programs should educate employees on the latest security protocols, potential threats, and proper data handling procedures. This training should cover topics such as recognizing phishing attempts, creating strong passwords, and safely using company resources. Using real-life examples of insider threat incidents can also make the training more effective.

It’s also important for employees to know they should immediately report any malicious employee activities or possible security breaches. Don’t forget to set up regular refresher sessions and updates to help keep everyone alert and aware of new threats.

Implement a Data Loss Prevention Solution

A data loss prevention (DLP) solution monitors and controls data movement across the network, instantly blocking unauthorized transfers of sensitive info if it notices something unusual. It can spot risky employee behavior, like sending confidential data through unsecured channels or accessing restricted files without permission.

This insider threat prevention system continuously scans and analyzes data at rest, in motion, and in use across the network, endpoints, and cloud environments. Moreover, DLP solutions provide detailed reporting and alert mechanisms that enable IT and security teams to respond promptly to potential data breaches and negligent insiders.

Use Employee Monitoring Software

Using employee monitoring software helps prevent unintentional insider threats by tracking employees’ actions on company systems. This software can monitor email communications, file transfers, and web browsing to spot malicious behavior or security risks. It also ensures that employees follow company rules and security protocols.

With real-time alerts and detailed activity reports, employee monitoring software lets companies quickly identify and address potential threats.

Plus, it can be used for training, showing where employees with legitimate access might need more guidance on security best practices.

To maintain trust and avoid ethical concerns, implement monitoring software transparently and clearly communicate its purpose and scope to employees.


What is an unintentional insider?

An unintentional insider refers to an employee or individual within an organization who unknowingly poses a threat to the organization’s security or data. They may exhibit behavior that inadvertently exposes sensitive information or creates vulnerabilities without any malicious intent.

Can an employee be an unintentional insider threat?

Yes, an employee can be an unintentional insider threat. Unintentional insider threats occur when employees unknowingly engage in behaviors that compromise security or expose sensitive data, such as falling for phishing scams or mishandling confidential information.

What is an example of an accidental insider threat?

An example of an accidental insider threat is when an employee mistakenly sends a sensitive document to the wrong recipient, resulting in unintended data exposure.

What are intentional and unintentional security threats?

Intentional security threats are deliberate actions by individuals or groups to harm or breach the security of an organization’s systems or data. Unintentional security threats are caused by employees or individuals who unknowingly compromise security or expose sensitive information without any malicious intent. Examples include falling for phishing scams or mishandling confidential data.


Unintentional insider threats represent a critical blind spot in many organizations’ security strategies.

Employees who unintentionally compromise security can cause as much damage as deliberate attacks and external threats. However, understanding these risks and implementing comprehensive monitoring and training can mitigate potential threats. What about you – are you paying enough attention to the human element within your cybersecurity strategy?

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