Understanding insider threat: a framework for characterising attacks

Jason R.C. Nurse, Oliver Buckley, Philip A. Legg, Michael Goldsmith, Sadie Creese, Gordon R.T. Wright, Monica Whitty

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference PaperResearchpeer-review

152 Citations (Scopus)


The threat that insiders pose to businesses, institutions and governmental organisations continues to be of serious concern. Recent industry surveys and academic literature provide unequivocal evidence to support the significance of this threat and its prevalence. Despite this, however, there is still no unifying framework to fully characterise insider attacks and to facilitate an understanding of the problem, its many components and how they all fit together. In this paper, we focus on this challenge and put forward a grounded framework for understanding and reflecting on the threat that insiders pose. Specifically, we propose a novel conceptualisation that is heavily grounded in insider-threat case studies, existing literature and relevant psychological theory. The framework identifies several key elements within the problem space, concentrating not only on noteworthy events and indicators- technical and behavioural- of potential attacks, but also on attackers (e.g., the motivation behind malicious threats and the human factors related to unintentional ones), and on the range of attacks being witnessed. The real value of our framework is in its emphasis on bringing together and defining clearly the various aspects of insider threat, all based on real-world cases and pertinent literature. This can therefore act as a platform for general understanding of the threat, and also for reflection, modelling past attacks and looking for useful patterns.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationProceedings - 2014 IEEE Security and Privacy Workshops, SPW 2014
PublisherIEEE, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers
Number of pages15
ISBN (Electronic)9781479951031
Publication statusPublished - 2014
Externally publishedYes
EventIEEE Security and Privacy Workshops 2014 - San Jose, United States of America
Duration: 17 May 201418 May 2014
https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/xpl/conhome/6954698/proceeding (Proceedings)

Publication series

NameProceedings - IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy
ISSN (Print)1081-6011


ConferenceIEEE Security and Privacy Workshops 2014
Abbreviated titleSPW 2014
Country/TerritoryUnited States of America
CitySan Jose
Internet address


  • Attack chain
  • Case studies
  • Insider threat
  • Psychological indicators
  • Technical
  • Threat framework

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