Cyber security: Human risk - a car crash waiting to happen

25 Apr 2019

Cyber security: Human risk - a car crash waiting t...

Brian Lord, Managing Director, Cyber


In every Corporate Cyber Security Maturity Model that we conduct across all varieties of corporate clients, two categories repeatedly always score lowest – one of those is ‘Staff Training and Education’ (the other is supply chain management’, but that’s for another blog post). Yet, the mantra of ‘the human risk is the greatest’ continues to underpin the cyber security narrative and, according to Phishme, 91% of cyber-attacks generally start through exploitation of human error.  

Interestingly, private sector organisations are normally pretty adept at corporate risk management – its their core governance activity. But in the field of ‘cyber’ risk, it’s a blind spot. Why?

Aside from the fact that ‘cyber risk’—a pretty unhelpful term at best—still struggles to find its place within established corporate risk management processes, the pervading corporate belief is that ‘cyber risk’ is about exploitation of technology. So, as the logic goes in this hi-tech world, the risk management lies in comparable technology solutions. How true is this?

Why is technology not the sole cyber security solution?

It’s easier to apply another type of traffic flow as an analogy. Society depends upon the smooth flow of people, material and products around the country. Traffic and transport accidents cause road disruption, tie up blue-light services, are expensive to repair and temporarily (in the worst cases, permanently) remove people from being able to undertake productive activities. The time it takes to repair damage and restore normality impacts society’s efficiencies. Therefore, we do everything we can to reduce such events.

And yes, technology has an essential part to play in this. We have introduced sensors, speed-limiters, advanced braking and steering systems, airbags, stronger materials and car design, and smart road systems to name a few. All aimed at reducing either the likelihood or resultant consequences of an accident. Technology has done its invaluable bit to help reduce traffic accidents and society is safer and better for it.

However, by introducing modern technology to reduce the damaging effect and likelihood of human error, society, in its wisdom, has decided that it’s a bad idea NOT to teach people how to drive. Since nearly all accidents are caused by human error, it’s still considered a pretty good investment to teach people how to drive properly, safely and educate them on the road rules.  

Even in today’s hi-tech vehicle environment, if a someone drives at 90 mph the wrong way down a one-way street in a busy city centre no technology in the world will prevent the damaging consequences.   

Business now depends entirely on smooth uninterrupted data flow and process. Anything that adversely affects that results in business disruption, ties up critical support response capability, damages equipment, prevents smooth running of the business and is expensive to get things back to normal. 

Yes, we can and should introduce technology mitigators to reduce the likelihood of the occurrence and impact. But, like road accidents, most cyber disruptions are caused by human error. But unlike car drivers, we appear to still think it is OK to put a human behind a computer without them knowing how to operate it safely or understand the rules that should govern its use? Would we tolerate that approach with any other corporate risk?  

“Our staff aren’t technical enough” is the common refrain. But we seem to be able to teach people to drive safely and learn the many road rules, along with basic car maintenance, without them having to understand how the engine works. We only take it to a mechanic when things get complicated – we certainly don’t go to them to replace the screen-wash or put air in the tyres.  

It’s the same for the modern working environment. We can invest in teaching people how to use a computer safely – how to identify common risks, set secure passwords, use the internet safely and embed strong information security practices, all while providing a context for why the cyber security team have introduced the security rules that exist.

Low investment, high risk reduction

You could properly train around 400 members of staff for the same cost of employing a standard Big-Four Partner consultant (with some supporting pretty cyber risk reduction slides) for about half a week. In practical risk reduction terms, trading a bit of slideware in exchange for significantly dropping the likelihood of something bad actually happening doesn’t seem to be an unreasonable risk management suggestion. 

And by ‘properly’, I don’t just mean the ‘tick and flick’ approach, which is akin to flinging the highway code at a new driver, asking them to spend 20 minutes reading it before throwing the car keys at them and wishing them good luck. ‘Properly’ means face-to-face education from experienced trainers in operational cyber security roles. This allows participants to engage with those who are tasked with helping organisations protect their assets, including systems and data. And at minimal time-cost to the organisation.

This two-way training approach engages the audience more effectively, embeds the understanding more firmly and ensures knowledge is acquired through genuine understanding of risks and countering measures, demystifying terminology, providing commercial context and the opportunities for two-way discussion. And after that, it is fine to keep the user up-to-date through modern eLearning, which updates, sustains and builds core knowledge, ensuring the cyber knowledge gap is perpetually kept relevant across the breadth of a workforce. (Oh, and the full eLearning delivery—for as many people as you want—generally equates to the second half of your standard Big Four Partner’s week’s consultancy.)

Mitigating the risk of human error

Technical tools aren’t all encompassing – especially if the end user isn’t equipped to identify threats. We live and work in busy environments and accidents do happen. Investment of just a proportion of your Cyber Security budget alongside the technology is by far and away the most effective risk reduction measure when it comes to cyber threats.

Talk to us about training for your organisation

Our cyber experts develop and deliver a range of GCHQ Certified Training, including education and awareness for broad audiences as well as technical cyber security disciplines for practitioners. Courses can be delivered at the PGI Cyber Academy in Bristol or, in most circumstances, we can deliver training at your premises. For more information on our courses, contact us via: email or phone +44 (0)207 887 2699

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