Human error – deliberate or unintentional?


By Visahl Samson David Selvam, Singapore

Throughout this technology age, from industrial to business, cyber security plays a critical role everywhere. Maintaining confidentiality of information in an enterprise helps it to work and maintains consistent operations.

The human is the weakest link in the cybersecurity chain from the very beginning (Swinhoe, 2019). In the field of information security, human error can be divided into two groups, either deliberate or unintentional. An intentional one may occur due to an insider threat, which has motivations behind it. While an unintentional one has no motivation or pre-planning, which may be due to a number of reasons, such as not knowing how a particular technology works, or lack of awareness.

According to research conducted by Kaspersky (Kaspersky, 2017), nearly 49% of malware/virus attacks are consisting of human error as contributing factors. In these attacks 53% are due to careless/uninformed employees, 36% of social engineering/phishing attacks, 38% is accidental hardware loss by the employee. Furthermore, as per Verizon’s 2019 data breach investigation report (Verizon, 2019), 34% of the data breaches are due to the threat of human error.

Human error causes and impacts

The research demonstrates that human error contributes to data breaches. Companies need to establish how these issues are going to happen and how it can impact them. There are several causes of human error.

The primary one is ignoring the workplace policies and/or not being aware of them. Under this case, the employee is presumably not aware of the organization’s information security policies and the employee has breached the policy which has resulted in a security incident.

Another reason is that common information security practices are not known. Awareness of information security includes classification of phishing / spear-phishing emails, malicious email attachments, poor passwords etc … Without that basic awareness of information security, the employee becomes vulnerable to the attacker / hacker. Currently attackers are not targeting the company’s executive/board members but rather they’re targeting low-level employees. Recently in the USA, it is reported (Lindsey, 2020) that hackers are targeting the potential employees to spread malware on the organization’s system.

The third primary reason is negligence. This could include failing to do the work properly. This factor would mostly be unintentional, but it does have a significant impact on the organization.

Data breaches occurred due to human error

Several data breaches have occurred due to human error. The well-known and famous data breach that occurred as a result of human error was Target Data Breach in 2013. Data breach studies (Xiaokui, Danfeng, Ke & Andrew, 2017) indicate that the data breach consists of several human error facts. In the first place, the malware has been planted into the systems in a sophisticated phishing attempt. Second, security warnings have been ignored and no action has been taken against the warnings generated by the monitoring software. According to reports, the total cost of this data breach is nearly US$300 million.

McCumber cube

McCumber cube methodology can be used in organizations to reduce the risk and impact caused by human error.

Education – SETA programs

SETA stands for Security Education and Awareness. SETA is a training program (Solms, S.H. & Solms, Rossouw. 2009) aimed at educating employees to reduce human error-related data breaches and to increase awareness of information security among them.  Implementing SETA programs is one of the recommended (M.G. Lee, 2012) methods and is followed by many organizations at this moment. According to ISO27001 Clause A.8.2 (Calder & Watkins, 2015), The organization should enable this SETA program not only to its employees, but also to its respective contractors and third-party users. Measures to conduct SETA programs at least once a year are recommended.

Simulated attacks

Simulated attacks designed by the organizations help in testing the knowledge and practices of employees. These are similar to the exercises of a fire drill. In simulated attacks, the organization sends the employees phishing / malicious email / email attachments to see how well they are identified and responded to by the employees. This is widely used and one of the recommended methods to follow (Rapid7, 2018).


Policies play a vital role in controlling/preventing the impact of human errors. The most recommended and important policies are password policy and information disclosure policy

Password policy

The primary purpose of the password policy is to create a strong password standard, to protect those passwords, and to enable frequently changing passwords. The password policy (Sans, n.d.) applies to all personnel responsible for any account, any system used within the organization, the network, and the facility to store any information. The following is an example of a password policy according to NIST 800-63 (NIST, 2020) guidelines.

  • Password should be a minimum of 8 characters when it being set-upped by people
  • Password should be a minimum of 6 characters when it being set-upped by a service/system.
  • The password should support all the ASCII characters including space.
  • Chosen passwords should be checked with a password dictionary.
  • Password should support at least 64 characters of maximum length.
  • Minimum of 10 attempts before the lockout.

Apart from those NIST framework guidelines, there are some more options which can be added to the password policy,

  • Passwords must be changed every 90 days.
  • The password should contain at least one upper case letter, one lower case letter, one symbol, and one number. This will help to increase the complexity of the password.

Information disclosure policy

According to ISO27001 Annex A.7.2 (Humphreys, 2016), organizations should conclude agreements whenever new staff join the organization. Also referred to as a Non-Disclosure Agreement, this sets out what information can be disclosed to the public and what information cannot be disclosed. The agreement should clearly set out the actions to be taken in the event of a breach of the Non-Disclosure Agreement. In addition, it is important that the organization take appropriate measures to make its employees aware of the agreement.

In addition, the organization can use the data classification policy to make this work easier. Data classification helps the organization to classify in terms of confidentiality. A typical data classification has four levels (Irwin, 2019); confidential (only higher management must access); Restricted (only particular job roles can access); internal (all the employees can access); and public (everyone can access). Classifying the information allows an employee to be aware of the information that they can disclose.

Apart from these two policies, organizations can consider another policy for BYOD (Bring Your Own Device). Organizations are also advised to run periodic internal audits/reviews to ensure security measures.


The use of proper technology will significantly reduce the occurrence of human error. Technology measures that can be implemented to prevent human errors include;

Employee Monitoring software

Use of Employee monitoring software is a basic mechanism that can be used by the organization to reduce the occurrence of human error. This facility allows every activity of the employee to be monitored so that, if any security incidents occur, information from the monitoring system can be used to identify the root cause / where it begins. There are several ethical issues associated with this but using this with acceptable policies such as what data can be collected will be beneficial.

Cryptography and Encryption

Encryption is the most recommended technology to counteract threats, particularly human error. Organizations should use encryption while resting data (Robb, 2017). Also, the algorithm that is going to be in place should be secure enough, and in general, instead of creating a new algorithm, it’s wise to choose one that already exists. Currently, in the industry, there are several vendors like IBM, Dell, McAfee providing their cryptography and encryption products.

Identity and access management

Allowing employees to have access only to what they need for their job roles would be an appropriate strategy. Identity and Access Management (IAM) deployment in place would also help to reduce the risk.

Two-factor authentications (2FA)

Currently, usage of two factor/multi-factor authentication is emerging among the organizations to provide an additional layer of support. According to research reports (Sans & Preston, 2014), the intention of adopting to 2FA is significantly increasing.

Upcoming landscape

According to the future cyber-attack landscape predictions of the security organization (Checkpoint, 2019), it is estimated that the phishing-based attacks will remain as a top vector of attack and will rise rapidly. Another prediction (Jason, 2019) estimated that the Phishing vector would go beyond e-mail and launch via cloud. So, when the attack vectors evolve the organizations need to keep their tactics up to date to combat them.


Since this vector of threat is human, it cannot be eliminated, but countermeasures can help to stop human error from turning into security breaches that can cause serious impact to an organization. Technology is not a single solution in cybersecurity to solve all the problems, but rather the shared responsibility of everyone to keep the digital world safe.

By Visahl Samson David Selvam, Singapore
Bsc Cyber Security,
Edith Cowan University – PSB Academy, Singapore.


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Xiaokui, S., Danfeng, Y., Ke, T., & Andrew, C. (2017). Breaking the Target: An Analysis of Target Data Breach and Lessons Learned. Arxiv. doi: 701.04940v1


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