The human element — cybersecurity’s greatest challenge

The stark reality of cybersecurity today isn’t merely a question of advanced software or strategic counterattacks. It’s about people.

The financial impact is undeniable with cybercrime costs projected to reach an astonishing $10.5 trillion annually by 2025. Yet, beneath these figures lies a more pressing issue: the exploitation of human psychology.

According to Verizon’s 2023 Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR), 74 percent of all breaches involve the human element, including social engineering attacks, errors, or misuse, while half of all social engineering attacks feature pretexting incidents — which is almost double from the year before.

Rather than taking advantage of technical vulnerabilities, these attacks exploit human psychology and behaviors, prey on emotions, and manipulate trust. A convincing phishing email, a persuasive voice scam (hello, MGM), a false sense of urgency — these simple triggers bypass elaborate network defenses. At the end of the day, the human is often the weakest link.

Understanding and addressing the human element is now imperative for cybersecurity. People don’t just use technology; their choices and actions can make or break an organization’s security posture. Failing to appreciate this human layer leaves the window open for attackers.

Key human element challenges

The most glaring human cybersecurity challenge is a simple need for more awareness. Employees who need help understanding social engineering threats and good data hygiene are liabilities.

Common missteps, like reusing passwords, clicking on dubious links, and neglecting multi-factor authentication (MFA), invite disaster. Even tech-savvy employees can fall victim to today’s highly convincing social engineering.

Tactics like spear phishing leverage detailed personal information to craft targeted emails posing as bosses or colleagues. The widespread adoption of AI only adds to the sophistication of these threats. Generative AIs and chatbots, while enhancing user functionality, offer cybercriminals tools to automate attacks and generate new code to evade detection. Just one employee falling for such a scam can jeopardize an entire organization.

Insider threats present another human risk vector. Whether through malicious intent, coercion, or a simple error, employees with system access can cause outsized damage. Their legitimate credentials let them bypass many perimeter controls.

Furthermore, excessive security precautions and alerts can be counterproductive. They produce “security fatigue,” where people get so inundated with prompts that they bypass them just to get work done. The same holds for overly complex password requirements. People struggling to access their accounts use weak passwords or take dangerous workarounds.

Compounding these issues are the psychological manipulations employed by attackers. They exploit natural human tendencies — authority, reciprocity, scarcity, consistency, and liking — to weave convincing narratives, undermining security protocols through social engineering. Defending against those exploits requires appreciating how people think and act.

Strategies for improving the human element

Organizations can’t just throw up their hands when it comes to the human factor. They need strategies to improve this paramount component of cybersecurity. Combating these vulnerabilities requires a holistic and multi-faceted approach.

The first step is basic security awareness training, focused on social engineering risks and the importance of vigilance. Well-designed onboarding and ongoing education make employees savvier and more prepared. They learn how to spot phishing attempts, use strong passwords, follow data policies, and more. Hands-on simulated phishing campaigns take this further, often reinforcing best practices and lessons learned and building greater resilience.

Beyond education, you must establish clear, enforceable policies that promote safe practices. This includes incentivizing secure behaviors, perhaps through rewards programs, and fostering an environment where security is viewed as everyone’s responsibility — not solely the domain of IT.

Innovatively, you can leverage behavioral economics and psychology principles to nudge individuals toward safer practices. Make security measures user-friendly so they seamlessly integrate into daily workflows rather than feel like inconvenient add-ons. This means embedding security at the initial stages of process development, ensuring it’s a foundational component rather than an afterthought.

How to build a culture of security

Fostering a culture of security starts at the top. Leadership must not only endorse secure practices but also model them. When the top ranks treat security as mandatory, employees will follow.

Continuous, comprehensive training programs should be the norm to ensure everyone is equipped with up-to-date knowledge about the latest threats and defense strategies. For this to work, communication is critical.

Discuss policies, threats, and protocols openly and regularly to make sure the entire organization is on the same page. By establishing feedback loops, you can guarantee the continuous refinement of strategies, allowing your organization to adapt to new threats as they emerge.

Finally, instead of viewing your employees as potential liabilities, treat them as valuable assets in the fight against cyberthreats. An atmosphere of transparency and support, especially when incidents occur, encourages more secure behavior and fosters a collaborative approach to cybersecurity.

Ignore the human element and play into the enemy’s hands

The human component of cybersecurity represents both a vulnerability and a line of defense. The statistics and trends make it clear: There is no cybersecurity without human security.

As technology advances, so do the tactics of cybercriminals, making it imperative to invest in human-focused defense strategies.

Cybersecurity works best when technology and humans collaborate seamlessly. Addressing both fronts is vital for managing risk in today’s threat landscape.  You can turn the human element into a formidable barrier against the ever-escalating wave of cyber threats through education, firm policies, cultural shifts, and strategic defense mechanisms.

Image credit: Andreus/

Sam Woodcock is Senior Director of Cloud Strategy, 11:11 Systems.