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The human element of a security plan can be both your strongest and weakest link. How do you build an effective human firewall to protect your organization?


When it comes to cyber security, all the technological firepower, defense mechanisms, and best practices in the world won’t protect your organization if your people aren’t vigilant, informed, and adept at using the tools given to them.

It’s like a Trojan horse: You can have a fortress, but if you simply let the bad guys in through your front gates, even by mistake, your entire enterprise could be compromised. (There’s a reason why a “Trojan horse virus” – a malware that looks like a legitimate program – is so effective at gaining access to a company’s network.)

Any organization that wants to protect both their sensitive information and their ability to operate safely and effectively needs to build a “human firewall.” A human firewall is an individual or group of people that protect against cyber threats by knowing, understanding, and utilizing best security practices, preventing breaches and other risks in a digital environment.

Most people, however, are not cyber security experts alongside their regular roles and responsibilities – which is why 88% of data breaches are caused by human error, according to Stanford University research. It’s up to your organization and its partners to build an effective human firewall and to support your people whenever possible.

WHAT IS A human firewall? 

In cyber security, the term "human firewall" draws inspiration from its technological counterpart: Like a traditional firewall, which acts as a monitor to prevent unauthorized access, a human firewall is a defense mechanism implemented by individuals to shield against cyber threats.

The human element of cyber defense is crucial. Though we’ve acknowledged that individuals are rarely as up to date on threats and best practices as security experts, anyone with the right training can add a layer of proactive defense against cyber threats. It’s often the simplest actions, the ones we take and the ones we don’t, that can protect us the best.

Acting as a human firewall involves active participation and awareness. Individuals play a critical role in preventing cyber attacks by staying informed, exercising caution, and adopting secure practices.

KEY CHARACTERISTICS OF AN effective human firewall

When building up your team’s cyber security awareness and culture, keep in mind the following characteristics, and build them into your training and communications surrounding security best practices:

  1. Vigilance: Employees acting as a firewall remain alert to potential threats, recognizing the importance of constant awareness in the dynamic cyber security landscape.
  2. Education: Knowledge is a powerful tool. A well-informed team understands the latest threats, security measures, and best practices, empowering them to make sound decisions.
  3. Adaptability: As threats evolve, an effective human cyber defense system adapts and evolves with them. This characteristic ensures the ongoing effectiveness of defense mechanisms.
  4. Proactive behavior: Rather than reacting to threats, employees should take proactive steps to prevent incidents, contributing to a secure digital environment.


What does a human firewall look like in practice, and what does it mean for the company?

Phishing awareness and prevention

Phishing is a cyber attack where malicious actors use deceptive tactics to trick individuals into sharing sensitive information such as passwords, usernames, credit card numbers, or other confidential data. This is often done through fraudulent emails, messages, or websites that appear legitimate, aiming to manipulate recipients into providing personal information or clicking on malicious links.

Some phishing emails are difficult to discern from legitimate ones, but there can be some telltale signs, including strange misspellings, unfamiliar (but eerily similar to what you know) email addresses, and requests for urgent action.

A well-trained employee could receive an email that is supposedly from the company's IT department, requesting sensitive login credentials. Recognizing the signs of a phishing attempt, the employee refrains from sharing information and promptly reports the incident. This keen awareness prevents a potential data breach.

Incident reporting culture

A major aspect of a successful human firewall is a strong incident reporting culture. Evidence of suspicious network activity – such as a phishing email attempt, notifications about multiple failed log-in attempts, or unusual device behavior like unknown processes running – could go unnoticed or unremarked upon by an inattentive employee. But if they promptly report suspicious activity to the IT department, the security team can take swift action to investigate and neutralize the threat.

Device security practices

It may seem obvious, but encouraging employees to secure all of their devices – laptops, phones, tablets, and anything else they use in the course of their work – is critical. Employees should consistently follow best practices for securing their devices, including regular software updates and utilizing company-approved security tools. This collective effort significantly reduces the risk of malware infiltration and strengthens the overall cyber security posture of the organization.

Social engineering resilience

Social engineering tactics are becoming increasingly complex and difficult to discern from actual communications, especially with the advent of artificial intelligence-backed voice and video tools. Email phishing is one form of social engineering, but there are others. For example, employees could receive a phone call from an individual claiming to be from a reputable vendor, seeking confidential information. Conversations like this one happen all the time, but the unsolicited request for confidential information over the phone is a red flag.  

The employee, trained to verify such requests, cross-checks with the vendor and discovers it to be a social engineering attempt. By resisting the manipulation, the employee prevents a potential data breach.

There are many other examples of how vigilant and sound behavior and tactics help build a resilient firewall – everything from setting strong passwords to using two-factor authentication. The bottom line with all of them is that it starts with people, rather than devices or tools, having the wherewithal to repel attacks and thwart threats.

How Organizations Build Human Firewalls: 10 Steps

Building a human firewall involves a multifaceted approach that combines education, awareness, best practices, and ongoing reinforcement. Here are 10 steps your organization can take to building a robust human-powered cyber defense system:

  1. Comprehensive training programs: Implement regular and comprehensive cyber security training programs for employees. Cover topics such as recognizing phishing attempts, safe browsing habits, and the importance of strong passwords.
  2. Awareness campaigns: Launch awareness campaigns to keep employees informed about the latest cyber threats. Use various channels such as email, posters, and workshops to communicate security best practices and real-world examples.
  3. Best practices integration: Integrate cyber security best practices into daily activities. Encourage the use of strong, unique passwords, enable multi-factor authentication, and promote secure file handling and communication.
  4. Simulated phishing exercises: Conduct simulated phishing exercises to test employees' ability to recognize and respond to phishing attempts, encouraging them to err on the side of caution. Provide feedback and additional training based on the results to enhance awareness.
  5. Security policies and guidelines: Develop clear and user-friendly security policies that outline expectations and guidelines for maintaining a secure digital environment. Ensure that employees understand and adhere to these policies.
  6. User-friendly security tools: Implement user-friendly security tools and technologies, such as a virtual private network, anti-phishing software, intrusion detection systems, and secure communication platforms, to enhance the capabilities of the human firewall.
  7. Communication channels for reporting: Establish clear communication channels for reporting suspicious activities or potential security incidents. Encourage employees to promptly report anything unusual, fostering a proactive and collaborative security culture.
  8. Regular updates and adaptation: Keep training programs and security protocols up to date to align with emerging threats. Adapt strategies based on feedback, lessons learned from incidents, and changes in the cyber security landscape.
  9. Leadership support: Secure support from organizational leadership to emphasize the importance of cyber security. Leadership endorsement can help create a culture where employees feel empowered to prioritize security.
  10. Continuous evaluation and improvement: Continuously evaluate the effectiveness of your strategy. Gather feedback from employees, analyze incident reports, and make improvements to the training and security protocols as needed.

Getting Help Creating a Human Firewall

For some organizations, building a robust cyber security program that includes a strong human security shield requires expertise and guidance. Experts in this space, such as Global Guardian, can provide assistance in the form of specialized knowledge, customized training programs, and more advanced technologies.

Here are some of the ways in which a security provider can help you protect your business:

  • Security audits and assessments that identify vulnerabilities in both the technical and human aspects of your security program.
  • The development and refining of security policies that guide individuals on best practices, such as password management, secure communication, and incident reporting.
  • Tailored training programs that educate employees on threats, practices, and the importance of their role.
  • Suggesting and implementing user-friendly security tools that complement and enhance the capabilities of your personnel, such as advanced threat detection systems.
  • Real-time monitoring of threats – via the appropriate hardware and increasingly robust AI software – that can detect threats before they spread.

A collaboration with a provider can be particularly valuable for organizations that may not have in-house expertise in cyber security, or want an outside perspective to strengthen their security practices.

Remember: The human element of a security plan can be both your strongest and weakest link. Whether you foster your own culture of collective vigilance, or consult expert providers, the strength of your human firewall lies in continuous learning, growing, and adapting. Keep your business secure from all kinds of cyber threats by staying informed and staying together.

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