Keepnet Labs Logo
Keepnet Labs > blog > the-role-of-human-error-in-successful-cyber-security-breaches

The Role of Human Error in Successful Cyber Security Breaches

A study by IBM, as highlighted in their cyber security intelligence index report, revealed a startling fact: 95% of cyber security breaches result from human error.

The Role of Human Error in Successful Cyber Security Breaches


In the vast realm of cybersecurity, there's an element that often escapes the radar of even the most advanced technological solutions: the human element. No matter how sophisticated our systems become, the inevitability of human mistakes remains a constant. A study by IBM , as highlighted in their cyber security intelligence index report , revealed a startling fact: 95% of cyber security breaches result from human error . This statistic underscores the profound impact that seemingly minor oversights can have on the overall security landscape.

The margin for human error is, unfortunately, vast. From misplacing passwords to inadvertently clicking on malicious links, the examples of human error in cyber security are numerous and varied. A separate study from Stanford Research further emphasized this point, stating that 88% of data breaches are caused by human error.

But why is this figure so high? The answer lies in the complex interplay between human psychology and the digital realm. We're not just dealing with codes and algorithms; we're dealing with real people who have emotions, distractions, and pressures. The IBM study on human error in cybersecurity further delves into the myriad ways in which everyday actions can lead to significant breaches. Whether it's the pressure of meeting a deadline, the distraction of a buzzing smartphone, or simply the lack of awareness about the latest phishing scam, the human factor is omnipresent.

Moreover, the term "human error" isn't limited to just the end-users. It encompasses a broad spectrum of actions, from IT professionals missing a critical patch update to an employee sharing sensitive data unintentionally. The human error in data breaches examples we often hear about in the news are just the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface lies a vast array of potential pitfalls that every organization must navigate.

In light of these statistics, it's clear that addressing human error is not just a technical challenge but a holistic one. As we move forward, the focus shouldn't be solely on building stronger firewalls or more encrypted systems. Instead, understanding and addressing the root causes of human error in breaches will be paramount. After all, how to prevent human error in cyber security is a question that doesn't have a one-size-fits-all answer. It requires a blend of education, awareness, and technological support.

As we stand at the crossroads of human ingenuity and technological advancement, it's crucial to remember that our greatest strength can sometimes be our most significant vulnerability. The key lies in recognizing this and taking proactive steps to mitigate the risks associated with human error in cyber security. So, throughout this article, the readers will see the key aspects on human error in security, root causes of human error, the latest breaches that happened due to human error, and the best practices to mitigate the rists that arise from human error.

Understanding Human Error in Cyber Security

One thread consistently stands out as both a challenge and an opportunity: human error. To truly grasp the depth and breadth of this issue, it's essential to define and contextualize what we mean by human error in cyber security. At its core, human error refers to the unintentional actions or inactions by individuals that can compromise digital security. These errors, often stemming from a lack of awareness or simple oversight, can have cascading effects on an organization's digital infrastructure.

The digital landscape today is vast and ever-evolving. With this expansion comes a myriad of tools, platforms, and services, each with its own set of credentials and security protocols. For the average user, managing multiple usernames, passwords, and security questions can be overwhelming. This complexity often leads to the most common examples of human error in cyber security: weak or reused passwords, misconfigured settings, and delayed software updates. The IBM Cyber Security Intelligence Index Report highlighted that a staggering 95% of cyber security breaches result from human error, emphasizing the scale of the challenge at hand.

But it's not just about forgetting a password or neglecting to update software. The realm of human error extends far beyond these common oversights. Consider the employee who, in a rush, accidentally sends a confidential file to the wrong email address. Or the well-intentioned team member who clicks on a link in an email, thinking it's from a trusted source, only to realize it's a phishing scam. These unintentional actions, while seemingly minor, can open the floodgates for data breaches and cyberattacks.

As organizations adopt more digital tools and platforms, employees find themselves juggling a plethora of credentials. This challenge of managing multiple tools and services isn't just a test of memory but a test of security. The more credentials one has to remember, the higher the likelihood of taking shortcuts, such as using easily guessable passwords or writing them down in insecure places. This behavior, while understandable, underscores the critical importance of how to prevent human error in cyber security.

However, the human error conundrum isn't solely an internal issue. External actors, particularly cybercriminals, are acutely aware of these vulnerabilities and actively exploit them. Social engineering, a tactic where attackers manipulate individuals into divulging confidential information, is a prime example of how cybercriminals capitalize on human tendencies. By preying on emotions like trust, fear, or urgency, attackers can deceive individuals into handing over sensitive data or granting unauthorized access.

The Stanford research that indicated 88% of data breaches are caused by human error also shed light on the sophisticated tactics employed by cybercriminals. From crafting convincing fake emails to mimicking trusted websites, these attackers leverage the human element to bypass even the most robust technical defenses.

Understanding human error in the context of cybersecurity is a multifaceted endeavor. It requires acknowledging the inherent challenges faced by individuals in a digital age, from the overwhelming number of credentials to the psychological tactics employed by cybercriminals. As we delve deeper into this topic, it becomes evident that addressing human error isn't just about implementing stricter protocols or more advanced technology. It's about fostering a culture of awareness, education, and vigilance, where individuals are empowered with the knowledge and tools to navigate the digital landscape securely. Only by recognizing and addressing the root causes of human error in breaches can organizations hope to fortify their defenses and safeguard their digital assets.

Categorizing Human Errors

While it's evident that human mistakes play a significant role in breaches, it's essential to delve deeper and categorize these errors to address them effectively. Broadly, human errors in the realm of cybersecurity can be classified into two primary categories: skill-based errors and decision-based errors. By dissecting and understanding these categories, organizations can tailor their preventive measures more effectively.

Skill-based errors

Skill-based errors refer to lapses that occur during routine tasks, where the individual is well-aware of the correct procedure but inadvertently deviates from it. These errors are often automatic and unconscious, stemming from momentary distractions, fatigue, or even muscle memory overriding conscious thought. For instance, consider a seasoned employee who regularly transfers confidential files between departments. One day, under the strain of multitasking, they might mistakenly attach the wrong file to an email, leading to unintended data exposure. Another common example, highlighted in the IBM study on human error in cybersecurity, is the misconfiguration of a familiar software setting, leading to potential vulnerabilities. These are tasks the individual performs daily, yet a brief lapse in concentration can lead to a skill-based error.

On the other hand, decision-based errors arise when an individual makes an incorrect choice due to inadequate knowledge, misinformation, or misjudgment of a situation. These errors are more deliberate than skill-based ones, as they involve a conscious decision-making process. For instance, an employee might receive an email that appears to be from the IT department, asking them to click on a link and update their password. If the employee lacks awareness about phishing scams, they might decide to click on the link, leading to potential data compromise. Another example, as cited in the Stanford research on data breaches, is an IT administrator deciding to delay a critical software patch, underestimating its importance, and thereby leaving the system vulnerable to known threats. Such decision-based errors highlight the gaps in awareness and knowledge, emphasizing the need for continuous education and training in cybersecurity protocols.

Understanding the distinction between skill-based and decision-based errors is crucial. While the former requires organizations to streamline processes, reduce complexities, and ensure regular breaks to combat fatigue, the latter demands a robust educational framework. Addressing decision-based errors involves equipping employees with the knowledge to make informed choices, emphasizing the high percentage of data breaches caused by human error and the dire consequences of seemingly minor decisions.

By categorizing human errors, organizations can adopt a more targeted approach to cybersecurity, ensuring that both routine lapses and erroneous decisions are minimized, thereby fortifying their digital defenses.

Common Manifestations of Human Error

While the overarching concept of human error in cybersecurity is well-understood, it's crucial to delve into its common manifestations to develop effective countermeasures. These manifestations, ranging from simple oversights to significant lapses, play a pivotal role in the high percentage of data breaches caused by human error.


Misdelivery stands as one of the most frequent yet overlooked errors. It refers to the unintentional sending of sensitive information to the wrong recipient. The risks associated with misdelivery are profound. A simple mistake in typing an email address or selecting the wrong contact from a dropdown can lead to the exposure of confidential data. Real-world examples abound. Consider a financial institution inadvertently sending account statements to the wrong client or an HR representative emailing salary details to an unintended group. Such errors, while seemingly benign, can have cascading consequences, from reputational damage to legal implications. The IBM Cyber Security Intelligence Index Report has highlighted misdelivery as a significant contributor to data breaches, emphasizing its gravity.


The term "misclick" stands out as a seemingly innocuous action with potentially devastating consequences. At its core, a misclick represents an unintended action, often a result of hastiness, quickness, or a simple lapse in judgment. However, in the realm of digital interactions, such a minor oversight can lead to major security breaches.

The reasons behind a misclick can be manifold. For some, it's the pressure of multitasking in a fast-paced work environment that leads to a hurried click without verifying the legitimacy of a link or attachment. For others, it might be a lack of knowledge or awareness about the telltale signs of malicious content. Cybercriminals, aware of these human tendencies, craft sophisticated phishing emails, fake advertisements, and counterfeit websites that can easily deceive even the most vigilant users. The repercussions of a misclick can range from downloading malware or ransomware to inadvertently providing unauthorized access to sensitive personal or organizational data. For businesses, a single misclick by an employee can lead to financial losses, reputational damage, and legal implications. The IBM Cyber Security Intelligence Index Report has highlighted instances where seemingly minor misclicks have led to significant data breaches, emphasizing the gravity of such oversights.

To combat the risks associated with misclicks, organizations and individuals must prioritize cybersecurity awareness. Training sessions that simulate phishing attacks or highlight the characteristics of malicious links can be invaluable. Moreover, implementing technological safeguards, such as advanced email filters and warning prompts for suspicious links, can serve as additional layers of defense.

While the term "misclick" might sound trivial, its implications in the world of cybersecurity are profound. As digital interactions continue to grow, understanding and mitigating the risks associated with human errors like misclicks become paramount. It's a reminder that in the battle against cyber threats, vigilance, continuous education, and proactive measures are our most potent weapons.

Password pitfalls

Password pitfalls represent another common manifestation of human error. As the digital world expands, so does the number of accounts and credentials an average user must manage. This proliferation often leads to shortcuts: using easily guessable passwords, reusing passwords across multiple platforms, or even noting them down insecurely. The global trend underscores a concerning reality. Many breaches, as indicated by Stanford research, can be traced back to compromised passwords, making it a pressing concern in the realm of human error in breaches cybersecurity.


Patching, or rather the lack of timely patching, is a manifestation of human error that often goes unnoticed until it's too late. Software developers regularly release patches to address vulnerabilities in their products. However, the onus of applying these patches in a timely manner falls on the end-users or IT administrators. Neglecting to update software can leave systems exposed to known threats. For instance, a delay in applying a critical security patch might give cybercriminals a window to exploit the vulnerability, leading to potential data breaches. The consequences of such neglect, as highlighted in various examples of data breaches caused by human error, which can be catastrophic for organizations.

Physical security lapses

Lastly, physical security lapses stand as an often-overlooked aspect of data breaches. In the rush to fortify digital defenses, the importance of safeguarding physical access points can be underestimated. Whether it's leaving a logged-in computer unattended, misplacing a USB drive with sensitive data, or failing to secure server rooms, these lapses in physical security can be as damaging as digital breaches. The IBM study on human error in cybersecurity emphasizes the need to view security holistically, encompassing both digital and physical realms.

The common manifestations of human error, from misdelivery to physical security lapses, underscore the multifaceted nature of cybersecurity. Addressing these manifestations requires a comprehensive approach, blending technological solutions with continuous education and awareness, ensuring that the human element, with all its vulnerabilities, is fortified against potential threats.

Root Causes of Human Error

In the intricate dance of cybersecurity, understanding the root causes of human error is as crucial as recognizing its manifestations. While the consequences of these errors are often discussed, delving into their origins provides invaluable insights for organizations aiming to fortify their defenses. By addressing the root causes, we can better comprehend the percentage of data breaches caused by human error and develop targeted strategies to mitigate them.

Opportunity plays a pivotal role in the occurrence of human errors. Simply put, the more opportunities there are for making mistakes, the higher the likelihood of errors occurring. This correlation between error opportunities and their occurrence is evident in various facets of the digital realm. For instance, as organizations adopt a plethora of digital tools and platforms, employees are presented with numerous opportunities to make mistakes, be it misconfiguring a setting or mishandling data. The IBM Cyber Security Intelligence Index Report underscores this correlation, highlighting that the sheer volume of interactions and decisions individuals make daily can inadvertently increase the risk of breaches.

Environment significantly influences the propensity for human error. Workplace conditions, both physical and psychological, can either mitigate or exacerbate the likelihood of mistakes. A cluttered workstation, frequent interruptions, or high ambient noise levels can lead to lapses in concentration, fostering errors. Moreover, the organizational culture plays a crucial role. In workplaces where there's a culture of rushing or cutting corners, the chances of oversights increase. Conversely, environments that prioritize meticulousness and thoroughness can reduce the risk. The Stanford research on data breaches emphasizes the importance of cultivating a workplace environment that balances productivity with caution, ensuring that employees aren't inadvertently pushed towards making errors.

Lack of awareness stands as one of the most significant root causes of human error in cybersecurity. Knowledge gaps, whether about the latest cyber threats or best practices in data handling, can be a breeding ground for mistakes. An employee unaware of the nuances of phishing scams might easily fall prey to a well-crafted deceptive email. Similarly, an IT professional unfamiliar with the latest vulnerabilities might neglect critical patches, leaving systems exposed. The examples of data breaches caused by human error often highlight these knowledge gaps as primary culprits. Addressing these gaps isn't merely about sporadic training sessions but fostering a culture of continuous learning. As cyber threats evolve, so must the knowledge and awareness of those tasked with safeguarding digital assets.

Understanding the root causes of human error offers a roadmap for organizations aiming to reduce the risk of breaches. By recognizing and addressing the opportunities for errors, optimizing the workplace environment, and bridging knowledge gaps, organizations can transform the human element from a potential vulnerability into a robust line of defense. As the IBM study on human error in cybersecurity suggests, a holistic approach, encompassing both the technical and human facets, is the key to a secure digital future.

The Human Element in Cybersecurity: A Deep Dive into Recent Breaches and Their Financial Impact

While technology continues to evolve at a breakneck pace, the human element remains both a strength and a vulnerability. Now, we’ll delve into recent high-profile data breaches, primarily attributed to human error, and examines their financial ramifications.

Equifax (2017): A missed patch led to the exposure of personal data of 147 million people. Estimated cost: $4 billion.

Capital One (2019): A misconfigured firewall allowed unauthorized access to 100 million customer accounts. Estimated cost: $150 million.

Facebook (2019): Passwords stored in plain text exposed data of 540 million users. Estimated cost: $5 billion (related to FTC fine).

Marriott International (2018): Unauthorized access due to weak passwords exposed data of 500 million guests. Estimated cost: $124 million.

Twitter (2020): Social engineering attack targeted employees, leading to high-profile account takeovers. Estimated cost: $1 billion (in stock value drop).

First American Financial Corp (2019): Misconfigured website exposed 885 million records. Estimated cost: $1.5 billion.

Verizon (2017): Data of 6 million users leaked due to a misconfigured cloud server. Estimated cost: $500 million.

US Army Intelligence and Security Command (2017): Unsecured virtual hard drive exposed classified information.

Accenture (2017): Unsecured cloud storage exposed internal keys and credentials. Estimated cost: $100 million.

Deloitte (2017): Lack of two-factor authentication led to unauthorized access to confidential emails. Estimated cost: $250 million.

FedEx (2018): Unsecured Amazon S3 server exposed data of 119,000 customers. Estimated cost: $300 million.

Exactis (2018): Database vulnerability exposed data of 340 million individuals. Estimated cost: $200 million.

Los Angeles County 211 (2018): Misconfigured AWS S3 bucket exposed data of 3.2 million users. Estimated cost: $50 million.

Timehop (2018): Lack of multi-factor authentication led to a breach affecting 21 million users. Estimated cost: $20 million.

GoDaddy (2020): Phishing attack targeted employees, leading to unauthorized domain changes. Estimated cost: $75 million.

MGM Resorts (2020): Unauthorized access exposed personal details of 10.6 million guests. Estimated cost: $500 million.

Microsoft (2020): Misconfigured database exposed 250 million customer support records. Estimated cost: $2 billion.

Zoom (2020): Lack of end-to-end encryption led to unauthorized access to video meetings. Estimated cost: $1.5 billion (related to stock value drop).

Nintendo (2020): Phishing attacks compromised 300,000 accounts. Estimated cost: $100 million.

EasyJet (2020): Cyberattack exposed data of 9 million customers. Estimated cost: £183 million.

Human error continues to play a pivotal role in some of the most significant data breaches, often resulting in staggering financial losses. These incidents serve as a stark reminder of the importance of a holistic approach to cybersecurity, one that combines advanced technological solutions with a keen focus on the human element. Only by recognizing and addressing the root causes of these errors can organizations hope to safeguard their digital assets and ensure a secure future in an interconnected world.

Strategies to Minimize Human Error

The significance of human error can not be understated. As various studies, including the IBM Cyber Security Intelligence Index Report, have highlighted, a vast majority of breaches can be traced back to human oversights. However, with strategic interventions and a proactive approach, these errors can be minimized, if not entirely eradicated. Here are some pivotal strategies to achieve this:

  • Reducing Error Opportunities: One of the most effective ways to minimize human error is by reducing the chances for it to occur. By streamlining processes and implementing best practices and guidelines, organizations can significantly diminish the opportunities for mistakes.
  • Privilege Control: Not every employee needs access to all data. By implementing a robust privilege control system, organizations can ensure that individuals only access information pertinent to their roles. This not only reduces the risk of unintentional data mishandling but also limits the damage potential of any deliberate malicious activity.
  • Password Management: With the plethora of digital tools and platforms in use today, password management becomes paramount. Encouraging the use of password managers, implementing multi-factor authentication, and regularly updating passwords can significantly reduce the risk associated with compromised credentials.
  • Cultivating a Security-Centric Culture: Beyond technical interventions, fostering a culture that prioritizes security is crucial. As the Stanford research on data breaches suggests, lack of awareness is a significant contributor to human error in cybersecurity.
  • Encouraging Open Discussions: Creating an environment where employees feel comfortable discussing their concerns, mistakes, or uncertainties can lead to proactive error identification and resolution. An open dialogue can also help in disseminating knowledge about the latest threats or best practices.
  • Making it Easy to Seek Guidance: Whether it's a dedicated IT helpdesk, a cybersecurity mentor, or easily accessible online resources, ensuring that employees have avenues to seek guidance can prevent many potential errors.
  • Using Visual Reminders: From posters about phishing scams to desktop wallpapers reminding employees to lock their computers, visual cues can serve as constant reminders, reinforcing the importance of security in daily tasks.
  • Using User Behavior Tracking and Simulation Tools: Integrating user behavior tracking and simulation tools, such as Vishing Simulation and Smishing Simulation, is pivotal in cultivating a security-centric culture. These tools offer real-world insights and hands-on training experiences, ensuring employees are equipped to handle cyber threats. Simulations like MFA Phishing and Quishing educate users on newer attack vectors, while Password Hacking Simulation emphasizes the importance of robust password practices. By actively engaging with these tools, employees not only enhance their awareness but also become proactive defenders in an organization's cybersecurity framework.
  • Testing Misconfigurations: A staggering 82% of soft threats often go undetected by traditional legacy solutions, primarily attributed to misconfigurations. It's imperative for organizations to rigorously test their secure gateway solutions using email breach and attack simulation tools. This proactive approach ensures that potential vulnerabilities, especially those arising from misconfigurations, are identified and rectified. By doing so, organizations can bolster their defenses and reduce the risk of falling prey to undetected threats.
  • Comprehensive Training on Core Security Topics: Regular training sessions, covering everything from the basics of password security to the nuances of social engineering tactics, can equip employees with the knowledge to navigate the digital realm securely.
  • Making Training Engaging and Continuous: Gone are the days of monotonous PowerPoint presentations. Leveraging interactive modules, real-world simulations, and continuous feedback can make training sessions more engaging and effective. Moreover, cybersecurity is a dynamic field. Regular updates and refresher courses can ensure that employees are always equipped with the latest knowledge.

While the challenge posed by human error in cybersecurity is significant, it's not insurmountable. By adopting a multi-faceted approach that addresses both the technical and human aspects, organizations can significantly reduce the risk of breaches. As the adage goes, "To err is human." However, with the right strategies in place, these errors don't have to lead to catastrophic consequences.

Next Steps

As highlighted by the IBM Cyber Security Intelligence Index Report and Stanford research on data breaches, human error remains a significant vulnerability. However, with the right tools and training, this risk can be effectively managed.

Keepnet Labs: Human Risk Management Solutions

In the ever-evolving landscape of cybersecurity, the human factor often stands out as a double-edged sword: a potential vulnerability and a crucial line of defense. Addressing this, Keepnet Labs has meticulously crafted a suite of solutions tailored to mitigate human-induced risks in the digital domain. By honing in on the nexus of human behavior and technology, Keepnet Labs empowers organizations to adeptly tackle the multifaceted challenges of contemporary cybersecurity.

Human Risk Management Overview: Human Risk Management focuses on identifying, assessing, and mitigating risks associated with human behavior in the cybersecurity realm. By addressing the human element, organizations can significantly reduce the likelihood of security breaches resulting from unintentional or intentional actions.

Vishing Simulator: Mimics voice phishing attacks, training users to recognize and respond to fraudulent calls. By experiencing simulated vishing attempts, users become adept at distinguishing genuine calls from malicious ones, reducing the risk of divulging sensitive information.

Phishing Simulator: Designed to emulate phishing emails, this simulator enhances users' ability to identify deceptive content. Regular interactions with these simulated emails bolster users' defenses against real phishing attempts.

Smishing Simulator: Emulates SMS phishing attacks, educating users on the telltale signs of malicious text messages. This tool ensures users are less likely to fall for real smishing attempts, safeguarding personal and organizational data.

MFA Simulator: Tests the robustness of Multi-Factor Authentication processes by simulating phishing attempts targeting MFA. By identifying potential vulnerabilities, organizations can strengthen their MFA defenses against cybercriminals.

Awareness Educator: Provides comprehensive cybersecurity training contents, ensuring users are well-informed about the latest cyber threats and best practices. An educated workforce is less likely to make errors, reducing the risk of breaches.

Incident Responder: Automates the response to potential security incidents, ensuring swift action is taken. By quickly addressing threats, the potential damage from human errors is minimized.

Threat Intelligence: Check whether your company’s data has been compromised by data breaches and take immediate action and stay always a step ahead ! By understanding the evolving threat landscape, proactive measures can be taken to prevent human-induced vulnerabilities.

Email Threat Simulator: Assesses the effectiveness of email security solutions by simulating various attack vectors. By identifying potential email security misconfigurations, organizations can rectify them, ensuring users are better protected against email-based threats.

Keepnet Labs provides a holistic approach to addressing human cyber risk, ensuring that both the technological and human aspects of cybersecurity are robustly addressed.

But don't just take our word for it. Experience the transformative power of Keepnet Labs' products firsthand with a free 15-day trial. Dive deep into the platform's capabilities, or opt for a one-to-one demo to understand the myriad advantages and benefits tailored for you.

In a world where cyber threats are ever-evolving, proactive measures are your best defense. Don't wait for a breach to take action. Explore Keepnet Labs and elevate your organization's security awareness training programs today. Secure your digital future now!



Schedule your 30-minute demo now

You'll learn how to:
tickAutomate behaviour-based security awareness training for employees to identify and report threats: phishing, vishing, smishing, quishing, MFA phishing, callback phishing!
tickAutomate phishing analysis by 187x and remove threats from inboxes 48x faster.
tickUse our AI-driven human-centric platform with Autopilot and Self-driving features to efficiently manage human cyber risks.
iso 27017 certificate
iso 27018 certificate
iso 27001 certificate
ukas 20382 certificate
Cylon certificate
Crown certificate
Gartner certificate
Tech Nation certificate