What is Human Risk?

Introduction - Why Human Risk?

In cybersecurity, risk is fundamentally about the impact and probability of events, as defined by Douglas W. Hubbard and Richard Seiersen in their book “How to Measure Anything in Cybersecurity Risk.” They describe risk as a set of possibilities with quantified probabilities and losses. This forms the basis for understanding and mitigating risk in cybersecurity.

Cybersecurity focuses on protecting an organization’s perimeter, which includes various technologies for network, content, and asset security. However, this traditional focus only partially addresses risk, mainly overlooking the critical human element. People, or agents, play a significant role in how assets and content within the organization’s perimeter are utilized, thus influencing the organization’s risk profile.

For instance, Zero Trust Network Access (ZTNA) solutions aim to shield employees from threats but often miss critical factors like user behavior, employee context, and environment. They generally apply a uniform prevention approach, which does not always suit different scenarios across various sectors and departments.

Because of this, analysts from companies such as Forrester call for a more intelligent approach in cybersecurity that incorporates an understanding of behavior, context, and circumstances, emphasizing the importance of managing human risk for a comprehensive cybersecurity strategy.

Human Risk and Human Risk Management in the Current Cybersecurity Landscape

Human Risk has been a longstanding challenge in cybersecurity. To address it, organizations typically use awareness programs, annual training, and simulations. These methods have proven effective to an extent, evidenced by reduced careless handling of sensitive information in sectors like healthcare and intellectual property.

However, Human Risk Management (HRM) faces the stark reality that a single successful breach by a malicious actor can cause significant damage, often making the success of training and awareness seem insufficient. Research supports that simulations improve behaviors against threats like phishing, but their effectiveness tends to plateau after 12-14 sessions.

For compliance, mandatory training on cybersecurity and threat vectors is essential for organizations to meet regulatory standards and obtain certifications. Despite the availability of tools like SIEM, UEBA, and SOAR for incident response, these often don’t fully address the “identify” and “protect” phases of cybersecurity as per the NIST framework.

This situation underscores the need for a more holistic approach in HRM, extending beyond traditional training and simulations. Incorporating a deeper understanding of human behavior and contextual factors is essential for a more effective cybersecurity strategy.

There’s a noticeable gap in cybersecurity: the absence of a comprehensive approach that merges data from tools like SIEM, UEBA, and SOAR for enhanced proactive defense. These systems often miss unintentional human errors while focusing on malicious actions. Effective human risk-oriented security solutions should offer not just insights but also actionable strategies to predict and preempt threats.

Although the human factor is recognized in organizational security strategies, it often remains isolated from practical threat scenarios. This isolation is exacerbated by the lack of incorporation of employee behavior and context in perimeter security policies (as seen on the figure below). Integrating these human elements is essential for a more effective and complete cybersecurity approach.

The Complexity of Human Risk in Cybersecurity

Human Risk plays a pivotal role in cybersecurity, demanding a nuanced understanding of terms like “vulnerability,” “threat,” “risk,” and “risk outcome.” Each term, while related, has a distinct meaning and impact.

  • Vulnerability: This refers to the weaknesses in security that can be exploited. Common examples include poor password practices and inadequate reporting of security incidents.
  • Threat: Encompassing factors that can exploit vulnerabilities, threats range from intentional (cybercriminal attacks) to unintentional (employees mistakenly sharing sensitive information).
  • Risk: This is the potential for damage or loss due to threats exploiting vulnerabilities. Crucially, it considers the specific context of the employee and the organization.

Human Risk Management (HRM) is about identifying and prioritizing risks, focusing both on the individual user and their broader role within an organization. It spans from user-focused risks, like individual behaviors, to technical role-focused risks across various departments.

Organizations must also consider specific risk outcomes they seek to avoid, such as malware infections, data theft, or privacy violations. Understanding the employee’s role and the organizational context deepens this risk assessment. Additionally, organizational risk, shaped by culture, sector, and region, plays a crucial role. For example, the risk profile of a Department of Defense entity differs vastly from that of an E-commerce company, affecting everyone from developers to public relations officers.

Recognizing the interplay of these elements is crucial. If any aspect is overlooked, the risk cannot be accurately quantified. Human cyber risk quantifies an organization’s vulnerability to loss or harm due to factors like employee security attitudes and behaviors, as well as the organization’s own hierarchy and culture. These factors vary in importance and collectively influence the likelihood of cyberattack incidents.

HRM goes beyond basic awareness and training. It requires a deep understanding of risks, data-driven decisions, and a focus on efficient, automated, and scientific approaches. This includes quantifying risks, where risk scores are used not just for performance assessment but also for calculating the probability and impact of potential outcomes. This comprehensive approach allows for effective understanding, measurement, and management of human cyber risk, forming the bedrock of HRM and its methodologies.

The Role of Integrations in Managing Human Risk

What Right-Hand’s Human Risk Management platform does, is we integrate with an organization’s SIEM, EDR, Email Security, DLP, and other security solutions they already rely upon on a daily basis, to give our clients visibility into which employees are most breach-prone based on the alerts they generate, trends, and risk appetite, at the individual, department and user group level.

With the more data that we ingest, and the more trends we are able to observe, we will soon be able to predict and prevent employee-caused security incidents before they even occur.

First, users receive real-time training nudges via Slack, MS Teams or email the moment they exhibit a risky behavior (such as violating a DLP policy or visiting a malicious web page).  So now, user training is relevant to more effectively change behavior, delivered in real-time, and no longer only checking compliance boxes.

Second, is that we’ve seen a direct correlation between the volume of real-time training nudges delivered, to a reduction in security alerts to the SOC over time.  This is the power of actually changing employee behavior.  Fewer employee mistakes made, equates to fewer alerts triaged. 

Third, is the power of all this data, and how our clients can use it to their advantage.  By understanding the full scope of all user-generated security alerts and which behaviors are more easily, or less easily influenced with training, security teams know where to invest into their security program, which controls and configurations need to be tightened, and where their remaining security gaps are.

Conclusion

In essence, the journey through understanding and managing Human Risk in cybersecurity illustrates the multifaceted nature of this challenge. The key to effective Human Risk Management (HRM) lies in recognizing and adapting to the complexity of human behavior within the cybersecurity context. It’s not just about deploying advanced technologies; it’s about integrating these technologies with a deep understanding of human factors – their behaviors, contexts, and the unique risks they bring to the cybersecurity landscape.

To truly safeguard against the myriad threats in the digital world, organizations must embrace a holistic approach to HRM. This approach goes beyond traditional training and preventive measures, delving into a more nuanced understanding of the human element in cybersecurity.

For those seeking to delve deeper into this crucial aspect of cybersecurity and explore ways to manage and reduce human risk effectively, our HRM platform offers a comprehensive solution. Get in touch with us to discover how our platform can enhance your cybersecurity strategy by effectively addressing the human element of risk.

Rodrigo Leme

Rodrigo Leme

Marketing Director for Right-Hand Cybersecurity, Rodrigo has over 20 years worth of experience in Technology companies in Brazil, US, Canada and other countries. He is based in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and loves everything tech, music, marketing, writing, and hockey (go Canucks!).

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