How Human Error Enables Cybersecurity Breaches – And How to Fix It

By Zachary Amos •  Updated: 04/08/22 •  5 min read

Human error is one of the most dangerous cybersecurity threats businesses face today. While few employees and team members intend to cause harm, small habits and mistakes can open the door to significant data breaches. To meet today’s rising cybersecurity threats, security strategies must account for human error and actively work to contain it.

There are some tactics that security professionals and business leaders can implement to reduce the risks of human error and protect their people and data.

Human Error’s Impact on Cybersecurity

Everyone makes mistakes. It’s simply a reality of being human. Many people are not even aware of certain habits and actions that can lead to security issues. For example, it is not uncommon for people to reuse a particular password or username across multiple sites. A user may have trouble remembering numerous passwords. However, this is one of the most infamous everyday cybersecurity weaknesses. Minor errors can be the seeds of expensive, damaging data breaches.

An estimated 24% of all data breaches are caused by human error, resulting in $3.5 million in average remediation costs. A misdelivered email or poor password habits can cause serious harm to an organization, its employees, and its customers.

Other examples of human error in security include careless handling of data. This occurs more often in organizations with minimal access protection on their data. Similarly, outdated software and a lack of proper security software are common human error culprits in security breaches.

How to Defend Against Human Error

Luckily, there is something that organizations can do to limit the threat of human error. Mistakes will inevitably still happen, but these tactics will ensure that they cannot cause excessive damage or create serious security risks.

1. Use Password Managers and MFA

One of the easiest ways to reduce the threat of human error is using a reliable password manager and improving login security practices. An estimated 53% of people rely on their memory alone for password storage, so a password manager can make life easier in addition to improving security.

Password managers are easy to find online and many are even available for free. For example, the Google Chrome browser has a secure built-in password manager that can create highly secure, randomized passwords that it will remember for users. BitWarden offers similar features in a platform-agnostic package. Using these tools will significantly improve password hygiene, eliminating the risks posed by weak user-generated passwords.

Additionally, it is worth considering multi-factor authentication for apps and data that are particularly sensitive. MFA can be any combination of secure login methods, such as a password plus a verification email with a unique login code. The double-walled login security of MFA makes it extremely difficult for hackers to break in, even if a user does have a weak password.

2. Keep Software Updated

It may seem harmless to click that “remind me later” button when software updates come up, but these updates often include crucial security data. It is important to remember that cyber threats are constantly evolving. Software security is not static; it needs to evolve alongside these threats. Schedule time for regular software updates and ensure everyone’s accounts or devices get updates as soon as possible.

In addition to general-purpose software, all devices should have reliable, comprehensive security software installed. This software, in particular, should be kept on a strict update schedule.

3. Minimize Access

Lazy access control is one of the top human error-related causes of data breaches. Minimizing who has access to data will significantly reduce the risk of human error resulting in a security breach. Leaving access to data unchecked can result in people accidentally deleting vital records, changing sensitive data, or sharing sensitive records via emails or other unsecured channels.

Beyond these human error-related risks, open access to data can allow inside actors to initiate data breaches, which are much more difficult to detect than an outside attack.

Limit access to data to only those who absolutely need access. There will be layers of data access, with some data open to everyone in an organization and some limited to only a few. Institute a strict policy prohibiting users from sharing their login credentials since this will threaten the security of limited access to data.

4. Offer Cybersecurity Training

One of the most common causes of human error is a simple lack of knowledge. Many people are not aware that their everyday actions can cause security threats. Offering engaging, accessible cybersecurity training is a great way to address this. Studies have found that even the least-effective cybersecurity training programs result in a seven-fold return on investment, with up to a 37-fold ROI for average-performing programs.

An effective cybersecurity training program should give employees knowledge and tools that will allow them to be their own first line of defense against cyber threats. After all, employees are the first to see phishing emails hit their inboxes. Knowing how to recognize these and other threats will go a long way toward preventing slip-ups and errors that result in breaches. When security tools are easy for employees to use and employees understand their importance, each individual is more likely to utilize the security practices.

Keeping People and Data Safe

Simple mistakes don’t have to threaten the safety of an organization’s employees, customers, and data. Utilizing these steps and tactics will help put organizations and users on the path toward protecting against human error. Anyone can implement these techniques, whether on a business-wide scale or simply on a personal device. With the right approach to security, human error can be a harmless slip-up rather than a dangerous security breach.

Zachary Amos

Zachary is a tech writer and the features editor of ReHack Magazine where he covers cybersecurity and all things technology.