Oh the humanity! Why people are your biggest cybersecurity risk factor

It often feels like no matter how advanced IT security systems have become over the years, the barrage of cyberattacks continue relentlessly. An often-cited reason for this is hackers aren’t resting on their laurels. They are constantly looking for ways to get around the newest technical defenses. However, the main reason cyberattacks continue to grow is that humans — the people you work with — remain the biggest cybersecurity risk factor. Taking a look at major attacks that have taken place over the years, their success can be traced to the actions of an employee, contractor, or vendor. There are a number of reasons why human cybersecurity risk is the weak link in IT security.

You can fool humans more easily than systems

cybersecurity risk factor

If an application requires you to provide a valid user ID and password in order to sign in successfully, it’s going to pretty difficult to get around that control. You’ll need deep technical knowledge to circumvent this defense. Yet, you cannot say the same about humans.

For example, an attacker could use pharming or phishing to deceive an employee into sharing their user ID and password. They could create a believable pretext such as a system maintenance issue that requires employees to provide their login credentials for manual authentication. The attacker need only gain the employee’s trust and they can persuade them to share such sensitive information.

Humans aren’t always predictable

Systems are built on algorithms. These are rules that determine what action or response the application will take when it’s provided with certain inputs. In that sense, systems are predictable except in the relatively rare instance where an unforeseen or unresolved bug exists. On the other hand, human behavior isn’t always predictable.

Even when an organization has clearly defined procedures, there’s no guarantee that an employee will follow the rules in the same way each time. In addition, just because an employee has adhered to ethical behavior in the past doesn’t mean they’ll do so in future. Good workers can go rogue. This inconsistency creates a loophole that a malicious third party can easily exploit.

You can incentivize humans to bend the rules

Systems are rigid and only respond to inputs provided. There’s talk of artificial intelligence and machine learning in future giving systems a dynamism that mirrors human intelligence. But even with that, it will still be necessary to hard-code in AI/ML systems certain rules that they cannot deviate from. Humans respond to stimuli. That includes monetary and non-monetary incentives.

So a hacker could offer a member of staff a sizable financial reward if the employee would be willing to extract and share confidential information from the organization they work for. A worker in financial distress could easily succumb to this temptation.

Humans suffer fatigue


Robots have rapidly taken up much of the automobile manufacturing process. They do not need breaks or sleep like human workers do since they do not become tired from work. All they need is scheduled maintenance and they will work like clockwork 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Humans, though, do suffer fatigue.

If you are a customer service representative who has to work through 150 or 200 phone calls every day, your alertness and mental fortitude at the start of your day is certainly not the same as your state in the last hour of the day. Fatigue inevitably sets in and with that comes a loss of concentration and a heightened risk of error.

In fact, many fraudsters know this and will call in the last half hour or so when they know employees are looking forward to leaving work. It’s at this time that workers are most likely to inadvertently disclose sensitive data.

Humans make mistakes

Policies and procedures are meant to provide a baseline that guides employee behavior within an organization. But humans are innately error-prone. Plenty of cyberattacks that rode on the human cybersecurity risk factor were successful not because an employee or vendor deliberately wanted to break the rules. Instead, they exploited human error.

A classic example is an employee who forgets to log out of the company network when they leave their workstation at the end of the day. An office cleaner, a rogue coworker, a remote attacker, or someone else with malicious intent could easily use that opportunity to access and extract valuable information.

Humans forget

When an organization first hires and briefs newly recruited workers on what their role is, they’ll usually share a copy of the procedure documents the new staff must follow when discharging their duties. In the first couple of weeks and months of work, they’ll religiously refer to these documents whenever they need to do anything.

Over time though and as they get comfortable with their mastery of the process, they’ll refer less and less to this documentation. This is where forgetting a step or two could wreak havoc on the company’s cybersecurity. A member of staff might for example forget to encrypt a sensitive document before emailing it to a client thereby creating opportunity for an attacker to intercept the data.

Humans love shortcuts

cybersecurity risk factor

The world has progressed because humans have over millennia continuously sought ways of doing things faster and with less physical effort. Think about any major invention in human history and you can see a quest to improve efficiency. Unfortunately, this longing for convenience and comfort can also have negative consequences.

For example, an employee must never write down a password or create one that is easy to guess. Despite this, people still write down their passwords and place the paper somewhere within reach of passersby. Employees will also go with easy to crack passwords like 12345, password101, password123, etc. These shortcuts create control gaps that a malicious third party could easily take advantage of.

Control the human cybersecurity risk factor

Ultimately, your biggest defense against the human cybersecurity risk is employee training and awareness. Knowledge will help your workers have a greater appreciation of their role in keeping the organization’s systems and data safe from unauthorized access and use. It ingrains security consciousness in their everyday work routine.

Featured image: Shutterstock

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