An insider threat vs. an outsider threat – Which is worse and why?

Itzik Alvas, Co-founder & CEO, Entro
June 8, 2023

The two types of software security attacks organizations encounter are insider and outsider threats. In this blog post, we’ll explore which threat is more significant to companies and how secrets management can help protect against the more serious of the two. 

Insider vs outsider threat: Which is the greater risk?

An insider security threat refers to potential risks posed by individuals with authorized access to an organization’s systems, data, or resources. These individuals may include employees, contractors, or business partners. Insider threats can be malicious or unintentional, such as an employee stealing sensitive data for personal gain or unintentionally downloading malware onto the company’s network.

On the other hand, an outsider threat refers to security risks from individuals or groups outside an organization without authorized access to its systems or resources. These threats typically involve hackers or cybercriminals attempting to gain unauthorized access to an organization’s data or infrastructure, often through tactics like phishing, social engineering, or exploiting software vulnerabilities.

Insider threatOutsider threat
WhoEmployee, partnerCybercriminal, hacker
WhyRevenge, financial gain, information theftFinancial gain
HowOver-privileged secrets, mishandling of secretsPhishing, social engineering, malware
Difficulty to spotHighMedium

While both insider and outsider security threats pose significant risks to an organization, insider threats are often considered more challenging to detect and prevent due to the inherent trust and access granted to these individuals, or applications. For the remainder of this article, we will focus on insider threats and how you can protect your organization from this grave danger.

2 cases of insider threats from the news

Let’s look at two examples to understand the high risk associated with an insider threat.

The city of Dallas lost 8.7 million crucial files, including police case evidence, due to an IT worker’s improper file movement, deleting nearly 23 terabytes of data. This is a prime example of how negligence can be more dangerous than outsider threats because insiders have legitimate access to the information they are trying to steal or compromise.

In another example, Mailchimp, a popular email marketing service, experienced a triple data breach in 2022. In January 2023, cybercriminals successfully executed a phishing attack, tricking a Mailchimp employee into revealing their login credentials. As a consequence, at least 133 Mailchimp user accounts were compromised, including those belonging to notable businesses such as WooCommerce, Yuga Labs, Statista, Solana Foundation, and FanDuel. These breaches highlight how insider and outsider threats pose a crucial risk to any organization.

Insiders know the security protocols, access codes, and other security measures, making it easy for them to bypass security safeguards. Additionally, insiders are often challenging to detect because they are already authorized to access the information they may be trying to steal. Outsiders may use insiders as leverage to gain access to even more sensitive data than otherwise possible.

Insider threat vs. insider risk

Insider threat and insider risk are two terms often used interchangeably, but they have distinct differences in their scope and implications. While insider threat means when someone in an organization does something wrong, insider risk is a bigger group of possible dangers that can come from both bad intentions and accidental actions by people who are inside the organization. 

Both the City of Dallas and Mailchimp attacks were accidental actions taken by the respective employees without malicious intent but they both resulted in significant consequences.

Types of insider threats

There are several types of insider attacks, including negligent insiders, complacent insiders, and malicious insiders.

1. Negligent insiders

These individuals do not have malicious intent but cause harm through their careless actions. Some examples are how they may accidentally disclose sensitive information, mishandle data, or fail to follow security protocols. Such employees often lack awareness of the potential consequences of their actions and may not fully understand the importance of cybersecurity.

2. Complacent insiders

Complacent insiders are individuals who become careless in their adherence to security policies and best practices over time. They may have initially been diligent in following protocols but gradually become less vigilant. Such instances can stem from a sense of entitlement or a belief that security measures are unnecessary. These insiders may overlook warning signs or fail to report suspicious activities, making them susceptible to exploitation by external threats.

3. Malicious Insiders

Unlike negligent and complacent insiders, malicious insiders intentionally seek to harm the organization. They may have personal motives such as revenge, financial gain, or a desire to gain a competitive advantage. Malicious insiders can exploit their access privileges to steal sensitive data, sabotage systems, or engage in fraudulent activities. These attacks can be difficult to detect and may cause significant damage before being discovered.

The role of secrets management in protecting against insider threats

Did you know that “Two of three insider threat incidents are caused by negligence”? This happens when organizations do not have oversight over an insider with access to the organization’s secrets such as API keys, access tokens, encryption keys, and connection strings. All it takes is one wrong click, or one disgruntled employee for things to quickly turn sour.

To mitigate the risk of insider security threats, companies must adopt a secrets management strategy that enables organizations to securely manage and monitor sensitive information, such as API keys and encryption keys. By centralizing and encrypting these secrets, organizations can control access and track usage, which will reduce the risk of unauthorized access and leakage.

Here are some ways a comprehensive secrets management tool can help protect the company from insider threats.

a. Create context around secrets

Knowing that a secret is exposed is just the first step, to take action on this information, you need to know the context of the exposed secret to gauge its risk levels. This is something that only a purpose-built secrets management solution like Entro can give you. Entro enriches secrets with metadata such as the secret owner, creation timestamp, creator identity, and the last rotation date. Additionally, Entro captures information about which cloud service the secret can access and its specific associated privileges. This enhanced context empowers security teams to track and manage secrets effectively, making it challenging for insiders to manipulate them unnoticed. 

b. Move beyond scanning

In the realm of secrets management, scanning tools have become commonplace for identifying exposed secrets. However, they often present a challenge when understanding the context and taking appropriate action. This is where Entro takes a different approach. It goes beyond the surface-level identification of secrets and enriches them with valuable metadata and contextual information.

By providing context on exposed secrets, Entro helps organizations to make informed decisions in case of a breach. Understanding the origin of a secret, its ownership, associated risks, and the privileges it holds allows for better security measures and compliance efforts. This is vital information to understand the whole story of a secret from an insider’s point of view. Armed with this contextual knowledge, organizations can take prompt and appropriate action, such as rotating the secret, updating access controls, or investigating potential security breaches.

c. Get timely alerts

There are many signs that your systems are vulnerable to an insider threat. It could be in the form of over-privileged access to certain secrets, or sharing of secrets within internal applications like Slack, Jira and more. Only Entro is able to alert you on these risks. Entro scans all secrets in your organization and alerts you on the over-privileged high-risk ones. You can then proceed to plugging these gaps. Entro scans collaboration tools like GitHub, Slack and Jira looking for secrets shared in code repositories, files, or chat conversations. It alerts you of any possible exposure. Armed with this information, you can greatly reduce the chances of being compromised by an insider threat.


In summary, organizations must confront the dual challenges of insider and outsider threats to safeguard their sensitive information. While both types of threats present significant risks, the nuanced nature of insider threats makes them particularly formidable adversaries.

Organizations equipped with advanced secrets management solutions like Entro can proactively mitigate the risks associated with insider threats. By seamlessly integrating features like secrets discovery, enrichment, anomaly detection, and misconfiguration alerts, Entro empowers organizations to reduce insider threats and fortify their overall cybersecurity posture. With Entro, organizations can confidently navigate the complex landscape of secrets security, ensuring that their business isn’t affected by both bad intentions and accidental actions.

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