2022: Insider Risk Year in Review


By Elsine Van Os

Unprecedented geopolitical changes and security threats have alerted many Western countries to espionage at the level of the Cold War. The wave of expulsions of hundreds of Russian diplomats from European capitals showcases this. Concerns from Western governments included the Russians’ access to insiders, particularly at technology companies. It showcases the deeper issue of insider threats at organisations amidst these geopolitical tensions. Despite the high alert to Russian espionage activities, national governments’ predominant concern is (still) China. 

In an unusual move, FBI and MI5 Directors make their first-ever joint public appearance to warn about the ‘immense’ threat from China. MI5 said its service had more than doubled its work against Chinese activity in the last three years and would be doubling it again. UK spy chief says the rise of China is the world’s top security issue. “Technology has become not just an area for an opportunity, for competition and for collaboration, it’s become a battleground for control, for values and for influence.” Especially the semiconductor and pharmaceutical sectors are hit hard with espionage cases on an ongoing basis and country-level measures are being taken.

Top 10 insider cases of 2022

10. Former British security guard at the U.K.’s embassy in Germany David Ballantyne Smith has pleaded guilty to violating the Official Secrets Act after he passed information to Russia. Smith, aged 58, was said in court to be motivated by an intense hatred for his homeland.

9. Russian man, Egor Igorevich Kriuchkov, has pleaded guilty in the U.S. to offering a Tesla employee $1 million to cripple the electric car company’s massive electric battery plant in Nevada with ransomware and steal company secrets for extortion.

8. Norway’s domestic security agency has detained a university lecturer who entered the country as a Brazilian citizen but is suspected of being a Russian spy. This arrest served as a warning for academics across the world, whose work across borders and collaborative instincts make them particularly vulnerable at a time of rising geopolitical tensions. 

7. Sergey Vladimirovich Cherkasov, a 36-year-old Russian illegal who was arrested by Dutch officials upon arrival in Amsterdam for his internship at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, has been sentenced to 15 years in prison in Brazil. The Court’s importance for Russia has increased since the invasion of Ukraine and its investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity.

6. Gang Chen, MIT professor, his case was dismissed in court. He was arrested last year and accused of concealing seven Chinese affiliations in applications for $2.7 million in grants from the Energy Department.

5. Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes has been sentenced to over 11 years in prison for defrauding investors in her blood testing start-up that was once valued at $9bn. Sunny Balwani, the former lover and partner of Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, has been found guilty of fraud and conspiracy charges.

4. Former CIA software engineer Joshua Schulte was convicted for one of the greatest data thefts in CIA history, the Vault 7 leak to Wikileaks. He is currently awaiting sentencing and could face up to 80 years in jail. This is a really fascinating and extensive read on him.

3. Markus Braun’s lawyer has filed a motion to suspend the criminal trial of the former Wirecard CEO just days after it began. If it is successful, Braun may be released from police custody. Wirecard declared bankruptcy in June 2020 after revealing that €1.9 billion in corporate funds reportedly kept in escrow accounts in Asia did not exist.

2. US court sentences Chinese spy to 20 years for stealing trade secrets. Xu Yanjun was accused of a lead role in a five-year Chinese state-backed scheme to steal commercial secrets from GE Aviation.

1. Two Iranian-born brothers, one of whom has served as a Swedish intelligence officer, have been charged with spying for Russia for several years. Their espionage has likely caused serious long-term damage. In the same timeframe, a Russian couple has been arrested as spies after a helicopter raid in Stockholm on suspicion of carrying out and aiding “serious illegal espionage.” Whether there is a link between the two cases is not yet clear.

The insider risk professional field of work

The year 2022 was, in my view, the year of further enhancing the insider risk profession. We could see this in various ways:

  1. The new Counter-Insider Threat Research & Practice (CITRAP) journal. CITRAP is a peer-reviewed, open-access journal whose mission is to champion the relevance and importance of multidisciplinary SBS research to the counter-insider threat mission space, communicate practical and theoretical advances concerning insider threat, and improve the translation of SBS counter-insider threat research into evidence-based practices. 
  2. The large body of ongoing research within MITRE on insider threat.
  3. Guidance (PERSEREC) and training (warning this is a plug for our training programmes) for analysts and managers.
  4. Nick Eftimiades has published the world’s first online course on Chinese espionage.
  5. Many vacancies for insider risk managers and analysts. It is clear that a growing number of companies are establishing insider risk programmes.
  6. We, Signpost Six, keep focusing on prevention and early detection as we find proactiveness in this field of work key. Please see my blog on this as well.

My top 3 recommendations to watch/ listen/read

Watch: Carlos Ghosn (Netflix)

Listen: Podcast Fat Leonard

Read: Patrick Radden Keefe- Empire of pain


This list was by no means exhaustive, but, we believe, important. We would appreciate any additions and thoughts you might have, especially if they provide important lessons which we can take with us into 2023 and beyond!  

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