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Employee Data Theft Definition, Examples and Prevention Tips

Data Security, Threat Detection

employee data theft

Not all attacks come from external threats. With frightening frequency, insider threats and employee data theft have hit organizations, stealing data, important IP, and putting the organization at risk.

There are a number of reasons an employee may have to steal an organization’s data – they may be working for or moving to a competitor, they may be compromised by another actor, they may want retribution, or seek to profit from an unknowing company.

In less malicious scenarios, employees (or third-parties) may just be careless, letting an opportunistic attacker get inside your network.

In this article, we’ll show you different kinds of insider threats you may face, how to prevent employee data theft, and how to prevent the threat from inflicting too much damage to your company.

What is Employee Data Theft?

what is employee data theft definition

Employee data theft is when an organization’s employee steals a company’s information for any nefarious or malicious purpose and to the detriment of the company. It’s a particularly difficult attack to defend against because, by nature, it’s internal and coming from an employee.

Insider Data Theft vs. Employee Data Theft

Employee data theft is a type of insider threat, which refers to any internal threat, whether malicious or not. We’ll be mostly focusing on employee data theft in this article but also mention insider threats whenever the information could be applicable.

According to IBM’s Insider Theft Report, insider threats (of all kinds, including employee data theft) have cost companies $11.45M, and incidents have tripled since 2016. Across 204 benchmarked organizations, over 4,700 insider incidents were observed.

Types of Insider Data Theft To Watch Out For

data theft types

There are a number of different kinds of insider data theft threats that threaten your organizations in different ways. We’ll model these types based on Verizon’s definition last used in their 2020 DBIR report.

Malicious Insiders

Malicious insiders are looking to seek some kind of gain, whether financial or personal by selling your company’s data or selling access to your information. They know how valuable your systems are and may be selling them to the highest bidder or your closest competitor.

Inside Agents

This type of insider may be your most dangerous as they are working on behalf of an external party. This could be a competitor or hacking group. With their malicious intentions and your employees’ access– it’s a dangerous combination to face.

Disgruntled Employees

Employees may be seeking revenge against an employer who passed them up for a promotion or just alerted them about their termination. Whatever the reason, these employees may seek to destroy or damage existing systems, data, or processes.

Careless Workers

There’s no malicious intent here but the danger is real. A careless worker who clicks on a phishing email or fails to abide by your BYOB policy can expose your organization to unnecessary risk.

Third Parties

Third parties such as cloud service providers and software providers often have access to your data and sometimes, your network. If the security of these third-parties isn’t validated and you’re not aware of how they can expose you to malicious hackers — they might just be the gateway a bad actor may take.

Employee data theft applies to the first three examples here where the employee’s intent is to hurt the organization while the latter two are kinds of insider data theft threats.

How to Protect Against Insider Threats and Prevent Employee Data Theft

employee data theft prevention tips

Now that you know the threats, you have to protect your organization against them and have a policy and process in place to mitigate your risk and reduce the damage in case an incident happens. If you don’t have anything in place at the moment, here’s a good starting point.

Prioritize Your Data Protection Needs

If you haven’t already, you should be defining what data is most critical to secure and keep safe. It could be your customers’ data, data that falls under strict compliance and regulations or data that, if exposed, could put your business at risk.

The amount of damage that can be done differs if an entire company’s payroll data containing PII is stolen, compared to a list of contacts taken from a social media account. Prioritizing which data is most critical will help you efficiently secure your organization. Going through worst-case scenarios will help you identify which data is critical to secure.

Have a Principle of Least Privilege (POLP) Policy

Once you have a good understanding of how to prioritize your data security, you can employ a policy that limits who has access to your data depending on their role and function. This goes beyond simple authorization and authentication and instead only gives access to employees on a need-to-have basis.

This will help reduce the risk exposed to you by ensuring critical data and network access is overall limited. This also makes it easier to discover who might be behind an exposure or incident.

Deploy Software to Monitor and Prevent Access

Once you’ve done the hard work of assessing your internal data security needs you can deploy software that monitors behavior and network access and limits who has access to parts of your infrastructure. When in the market for this kind of software, make sure you prioritize visibility, control, and the ability to expand the software’s access as your company and network grow.

Have an Incident Response Plan Ready

No plan or software can give you a 100% prevention guarantee so it’s important to plan and prepare for the worst-case scenarios. Using the types of insider threats listed above and the critical data assessment we outlined, you can run through various scenarios.

What if a recently laid-off employee turned off automatic updates for critical software?

What if a third-party infrastructure provider suffered a data breach?

What if an employee in the finance department clicked on a phishing email?

You can work with your department to run through dozens of scenarios and put together incident response plans that overlap with these possibilities. As usual, we recommend prioritizing scenarios that would result in your business’ process being impacted, that would jeopardize your customer base, or severely impact your reputation.

Your incident response plan should focus on damage reduction, mitigating additional risk, internal and external comms, and returning to an operational state as soon as possible.

Moving Forward

Insider threats and employee data theft feel like unique threats but there’s a lot of overlap when you consider your overall cybersecurity posture from a holistic standpoint. Third-party risk management ensures your vendors aren’t putting you at risk, asset visibility lets you know whether there’s any odd behavior happening within your network, and traditional endpoint security helps keep external parties out, even if they try and leverage your internal employees.

To learn more about how to protect your entire department from internal and external threats, check out Varonis’ DatAdvantage platform, designed to give you total control and visibility across the entire data infrastructure.

Josue Ledesma

Josue Ledesma

Josue Ledesma is a writer, filmmaker, and content marketer living in New York City. He covers information security, tech and finance, consumer privacy, and B2B digital marketing. You can see his writing portfolio on


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