How to Reduce Human Error in Information Security Incidents

According to the 2014 IBM Chief Information Security Officer Assessment, 95 percent of information security incidents involve human error. Human error is not only the most important factor affecting security, but it is also a key factor in aviation accidents and in medical errors. Information security risk managers and chief information security officers can benefit from the insights of studies on the human factor within these industries to reduce human error related to security.

What Is Human Error?

Human errors are usually defined as circumstances in which planned actions, decisions or behaviors reduce — or have the potential to reduce — quality, safety and security. Examples of human error involved in information security include the following:

  • System misconfiguration;
  • Poor patch management;
  • Use of default usernames and passwords or easy-to-guess passwords;
  • Lost devices;
  • Disclosure of information via an incorrect email address;
  • Double-clicking on an unsafe URL or attachment;
  • Sharing passwords with others;
  • Leaving computers unattended when outside the workplace;
  • Using personally owned mobile devices that connect to the organization’s network.

Human-factor engineers in aviation assume that serious incidents are not caused by just one human error, but by an unfortunate alignment of several individual events. Incidents happen when a series of minor events occur consecutively and/or concurrently. It is easy to see the parallel with information security incidents, which are often caused by a combination of human errors and security inadequacies.

Strategies to Tackle Human Error

Organizations apply a variety of strategies to secure information. Many of these are based on lessons from the human-factor engineering discipline. Some well-known examples include the following:

  1. Eliminating strategies that make it possible for system users to make a mistake. For example, you could use automated safeguards such as cryptography, password management, identity and access management, network access rules and automatic standby locks.
  2. Using prevention strategy approaches to support someone in the correct execution of tasks, such as checklists, awareness campaigns, procedures, disciplinary measures, litigation threats, training and retraining.
  3. Using a mitigation strategy to mitigate the consequences of errors by making sure detection mechanisms are in place to correct situations before they become an incident. Examples include audits, internal control, breach detection solutions, system monitoring and surveillance.

Developing Helpful Programs

Additionally, the aviation and health care industries support a holistic error prevention approach to change conditions in the organization, the environment and the systems that people work with. These systemic (socio-technical) strategies could be of great benefit to information security.

Crew resource management (CRM) is a training program developed for airline crews to learn how to manage and behave during an incident. CRM training encompasses communication, situational awareness, problem-solving, decision-making and teamwork. The application of CRM in health care and aviation has proven to significantly reduce errors. When applying this method to information security, it is important to recognize that humans are your strongest links in times of crisis. Security incidents will happen, and staff should be trained to recognize and contain them. Rehearsing possible incident scenarios with your team and taking time to imagine other risks will prepare the team for possible scenarios. In the case of an ongoing data breach, staff will be prepared to make the best possible use of equipment, procedures and each other.

Decades’ worth of data from aviation incident reporting systems have been effectively used to redesign aircraft, air traffic control systems, airports and pilot training. Information security specialists should also keep analyzing security incidents and near misses. Without such analysis, there is no way to uncover recurring errors. Investigations should target the people involved, the team, the workplace, the organization, third parties and the information and communications technology systems. The important issue is not who blundered, but how and why the incident occurred.

It has long been recognized that distractions, fatigue, workload, poor environmental conditions and poor system and process design influence the number of medical errors. These factors should also be included in information security risk assessments. For example, overworked staff members are more likely to deviate from the expected security behavior.

Finally, leadership is essential to change the conditions in which you work. Local “champions” (security officers, auditors, data protection officers, compliance officers, crisis managers, etc.) can motivate others, but major changes toward a secure and resilient organization require technological investment, direction and support from the leaders who demonstrate their own commitment to information security.

It is human to make errors, and they can never be 100 percent prevented. A mixture of strategies may help to prevent human errors from turning into security incidents. Successes in human error reduction in aviation give hope, while studies of medical errors provide valuable insight. Information security can improve greatly when you keep learning from other sectors and collaborate to share knowledge.

Nicole van Deursen

Information Security Researcher

Nicole van Deursen has worked in several industries as an information security consultant and manager. In these roles,...