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Navigating Human Vulnerability in Cybersecurity — Challenges and Opportunities


The human element of cybersecurity is simultaneously the most effective tool in your risk management toolbelt and the most complex to manage. Your staff can be your most robust early warning system, or the entry point for a disastrous cyberattack. 

How you manage your staff and their approach to cybersecurity dictates your organization’s resilience. Let's explore why.

Why Humans Are Your Biggest Cybersecurity Risk

Some cybersecurity practitioners approach security safeguards with the fallacious belief that implementing defense-in-depth security infrastructure is sufficient to protect an organization. Thankfully, that mindset is gradually becoming extinct because the data refutes it. 

Experts project the global cybercrime market will cost businesses $10.5 trillion in 2025, with cybercriminal income representing a significant portion. Cybercriminals are very financially motivated to grow their criminal enterprises and wreak havoc. 

Humans are the No. 1 attack vector for cyberattacks. They’re especially susceptible to social engineering tactics, which play on human psychology to gain access to an environment to execute an attack. 

Technology alone is insufficient to address this most critical vulnerability, and failing to effectively address the human element of cybersecurity is downright reckless in 2024. 

Challenges in Dealing With Human Vulnerabilities

If anticipating and managing human vulnerabilities was easy, it wouldn’t be a multibillion-dollar industry projected to grow exponentially in the next few years. The reason for that difficulty is how hackers exploit human vulnerabilities.

Technical exploits tend to be primarily binary, which means the exploit will occur in the ideal conditions and otherwise will not happen. 

That principle also accounts for things like detection and response solutions and other mitigating infrastructure. A successful attack can overcome the attack surface boundary, which is why most organizations substantially harden their attack surface. If an attacker can’t get in, they won’t wreak havoc. 

Social engineering attacks tend to be more complex.

Unpacking Social Engineering Tactics

Humans pose a unique gap in the attack surface due to their complex needs and motivations:

  • They are susceptible to greed and blackmail.
  • They want to help, even if a request seems suspicious.
  • The instinctual fight-or-flight mechanism kicks in.

Social engineering attacks — which substantially predate modern cybersecurity — take advantage of these factors. While these attacks have changed with the rise of digital technologies, the solution has stayed relatively consistent over time. Training can make people more aware of the confidence tricks leveraged in social engineering and teach them to be savvier against them. However, remember that while training is the most effective solution, it doesn’t eliminate the risk of attacks — it only mitigates them. 

How Individual Variation Affects Security

Situational awareness is another factor that impacts training. Some people can extrapolate from abstract concepts and apply them in novel ways. For example, they may naturally understand how the information they learn about social engineering approaches in the corporate environment relates to their everyday work without much guidance.

Others must have specific situations explained to them. For example, while phishing and vishing are nearly identical and differ only based on email versus voice delivery, your team members may need explicit training on handling both situations. Different learning styles, including neurodivergence, can make it challenging to choose the most effective training. 

The same considerations apply to the technical components of cyberattacks. System compromise may be primarily opaque to most users. If people notice anything amiss, it may be the inability to access files or specific resources, system slowness, or other odd behavior. They may dismiss these as “technological problems," which is why you need to educate staff on:

  • Differences between technical issues and cyberattacks
  • The importance of taking potential threats seriously
  • Acting quickly rather than assuming someone else will report the problem

Opportunities in Dealing With Human Vulnerabilities

Everyone has a different cybersecurity awareness level. While this natural variation can present additional challenges in staff training, it can also create opportunities for bolstering your security posture.

Here's a simple example. While people can use general situational awareness to understand social engineering attacks as a whole, they may miss explicit triggers. Those who need more targeted training experience the opposite situation, where they overlook generic tactics but notice specific details.

This overlapping awareness can provide substantial in-depth defense against social engineering attacks. The challenge comes in cultivating this defense, which typically requires a complete shift in your organization's approach to external communications.

One of the best examples of that shift is investing in a training program that caters to differences in educational approach. 

Best Practices in Mitigating Human Risk in Cybersecurity

The difference between effective and ineffective training can be successfully mitigating an attack or losing millions of dollars to easily preventable damage. 

That damage isn’t speculative — thousands of cyberattacks happen daily. Your organization's approach should be a matter of “when” and not “if.” 

Efficient training accounts for different learning styles and the impacts of neurodiversity — generally speaking, the more options and variety, the more successful your program will be. 

While educated staff are better at addressing vulnerabilities, there also needs to be a free exchange of information. 

As we mentioned, everyone brings different learning styles and observational skills to their lessons. Organizations committed to open information exchange can maximize protection by leveraging that variation to build a robust defense-in-depth security infrastructure.

That’s primarily through building a culture of security awareness, which involves:

  • Informing people of the consequences of cyberattacks
  • Making sure they understand the importance of mitigating cyberattacks
  • Incentivizing the reporting and mitigation of cyberattacks
  • Giving people a personal stake in exchanging information and improving their responsiveness


Gamifying cyber awareness training through internal competitions, bug bounties, and other incentives can motivate your team to master mitigating issues and keep them engaged.

Why Building a Culture of Awareness Is Crucial

By creating a culture of cyber awareness and promoting good behavior, you can incentivize people to perform “gut checks,” where they share information about suspected threats with peers. 

This collaborative culture encourages employees to identify threats early and often, significantly reducing your risk.

Supplement that identification and awareness with these measures.

  • Creating escalation pathways: Empower your people to report issues and find support for those reported issues. Disincentivizing your staff from reporting potential threats or introducing other forms of friction into the process will make them less likely to report.
  • Allowing learning moments: Some reports will be false positives, so refrain from punishing your staff. For example, spotting legitimate business email compromise can be challenging for new staff members who are still learning the ropes.
  • Rewarding progress: Celebrating your team's little wins reinforces the lessons they've learned and motivates them to continue engaging with your training content. Incentives like gift cards or recognition at the next staff meeting can be memorable rewards for employees who reach training milestones.

Enhancing Security Through Awareness and Training

You can overcome challenges and take advantage of opportunities to create defensive, in-depth human vulnerability management. Here are some straightforward recommendations to get you started.

  • Assume cyberattacks are inevitable: Threats are a foregone conclusion, and accepting that reality is essential for creating a more robust security program. Your emphasis must be on mitigating risks quickly and cost-effectively, not waiting to get hit with an attack that will cost your organization millions. 
  • Play to people’s strengths: Invest in a security training platform that provides engaging training to benefit employees with different learning styles.
  • Have realistic expectations: Not everyone can catch everything — you need multiple checks in place for social engineering threats.
  • Build a culture of awareness: Make sure people understand what security awareness is and that they don’t need to operate in isolation.
  • Emphasize collaboration: People can actively identify more threats when they compare notes. Ensure your staff feels comfortable sharing information and validating whether something is a genuine threat. 
  • Simplify escalation procedures: The more barriers you put in the way of security incident escalation, the less likely your team will be to report security incidents. Effective controls are functional controls  and in the human space, that means removing obstacles
  • Incentivize threat identification: Reinforcement is a powerful behavioral tool. The more you do to reward people, the better they will become at identifying and eliminating threats. 
  • Empower staff: Your organization’s human attack surface is broad, and a cyber threat can impact anyone. Empower your team to act on those threats. Nothing compromises your cybersecurity program more than preventing a line of defense from doing its job. 
  • Disincentivize wisely: Some people might refuse to adopt a culture of security. Even worse, they may actively act as insider threats. Reserving punitive or negative reinforcement for those cases will disincentivize the behavior. 

Though the list above isn’t comprehensive, it should help you shape a cybersecurity awareness program to build a culture of awareness and harden your organization from social engineering and other vulnerabilities

Where your systems may not pick up a threat, your people will. Those safeguards will pay dividends in other areas, such as:

  • Your technical security infrastructure may miss major threats.
  • Files may become inaccessible.
  • The network or computers may run slowly.
  • People may see other atypical behavior.

Your staff can be an excellent early warning system that identifies problematic behavior and encourages rapid reporting. They will adaptably spot issues quickly and address them effectively if empowered to do so. 

Phin Security's Approach to Changing Employee Behavior

Investing in your staff and building a culture of security awareness can pay dividends by averting costly and debilitating cyberattacks. Doing so requires acknowledging the challenges of working with people, who are naturally susceptible to attack and difficult to train

At Phin Security, we see those challenges as opportunities to maximize security and optimize your operations. Our innovative training platform focuses on changing employee behavior so you can turn your staff into a robust first line of defense. 

With our user-friendly platform, you can easily:

  • Educate your staff about cyberattacks and social engineering schemes
  • Correct mistakes through ongoing Learning Moments
  • Empower your people to discuss their training and hold each other accountable
  • Track employee progress on a group or individual level for a complete understanding of your risk profile
  • Encourage team members to identify incidents through incentives and gamification

Ultimately, while your staff may lack the accuracy of your technical infrastructure, they’re far more adaptable than any machine. That resilience enables them to take a uniquely human approach to addressing threats and mitigating crippling attacks.


Manage the Human Element With Solutions From Phin Security 

We designed our security awareness training and phishing simulation solutions specifically for MSPs, so you can address your company's unique training needs and deliver peace of mind to your clients. Request your free trial today or connect with our team for more information.