How hackers exploit our vulnerabilities

Issue 7 2023 Information Security, Risk Management & Resilience


Anna Collard.

Human error is responsible for a massive 95% of cybersecurity issues worldwide. Mistakes made by people are the primary cause of these problems. In South Africa, a recent Sophos report revealed that exploited vulnerabilities were the leading cause of cyberattacks for organisations in 2023, closely followed by compromised credentials. In the past year, the average cost incurred by South African companies as a result of cybersecurity breaches is a staggering R14 million ($750 000). It does not stop there. South Africans also face higher rates of depression and anxiety compared to other countries, in addition to getting less sleep on average.

With this combination of factors, it is no wonder that distracted, tired, and stressed South Africans often find themselves clicking on the wrong links and unknowingly introduce security risks.

Hacking humans

Bad actors target individuals because they are more vulnerable to hacking compared to advanced security technology. This practice, commonly known as the science of hacking humans, involves using deception and manipulation as common methods of social engineering. These tactics serve as the primary means of initiating attacks. In fact, in 2022, 74% of all data breaches included a human element.

While it may not be possible to completely eliminate stress and sleep deprivation, there are ways to mitigate their impact and protect against psychological attacks. Investing in tools and adopting specific approaches can make a significant difference. The first and most important of these is to foster critical thinking and cultivate skills that enhance situational and self-awareness. These skills are set to become even more vital as the world transitions into the metaverse and artificial intelligence (AI) tools become increasingly prevalent.

Know the warning signs

One of the core considerations for users is to pay attention. Multitasking is a myth. In fact, it is actually detrimental to individuals as it leads to human error, impairs long-term memory, and diminishes the ability to stay focused and creative. Moreover, multitasking increases the likelihood of behaving inappropriately and is often the cause of security mistakes. For instance, talking on the phone while reading emails? You’re not paying attention and could inadvertently click on the wrong link.

Another risk is emotions. Hackers heavily exploit this vulnerability through phishing emails and scams, crafting their content to trigger the amygdala and elicit a fight-or-flight response. The amygdala bypasses critical thinking and is the root cause of potentially dangerous decision-making. It is also the reason why fake news is more likely to be reshared, as it directly taps into people’s emotions.

The power of mindfulness

Combine distraction and emotion with speed, and you have a potent cocktail for hackers. Human beings tend to make quick decisions, and if they are not mindful of their reasoning, they may click on a phishing email, open an attachment, or share sensitive information. That is why many attacks employ tactics that create a sense of urgency, urging people to take immediate action, and unfortunately, people often comply.

Mindfulness serves as a powerful tool in managing immediate and emotional responses, reducing the risk of being distracted. When individuals practice mindfulness, they are less prone to making mistakes, pay closer attention to their tasks, and, as a bonus, experience less stress. By approaching work mindfully, individuals are less likely to fall victim to attacks. If organisations incorporate mindfulness into their training programmes, individuals become more aware of potential threats and are less likely to be caught off guard.

One way to incorporate this, is via mindful moments, allowing people to end meetings five minutes earlier to take time to decompress and use breathwork or movement and focus on the present moment before starting the next task. A mindful organisational culture enables people to slow down, focus, and effectively manage their reactions. This not only minimises risks but also helps people get more done, and be more productive and happier.




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