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The Impact of Human Behavior on Email Data Security

Human risk factors are essential when interacting with technology, especially data security-based technologies. Such matter occurs because certain human behaviors are prone to risks that can impact business continuity and overall business goals. Moreover, the rapid growth of virtualization introduces a new and sophisticated dimension of human risk factors to critical partitions of an organization, including email communication networks.

For example, employees across the globe now use their potentially unsafe personal devices to access resources on secure corporate networks, to which other key partners, customers, and colleagues are also connected. As a result, the probability and impact of a potential email security threat could quickly spread from a personal device to an otherwise protected corporate network.

Maintaining a protected email communication posture requires a proactive understanding of human behavior and the need for behavioral intelligence. This article highlights the human risk factors associated with email data security. In addition, it provides clear and straightforward best practices to help small to midsize businesses (SMBs) combat cyber threats related to human-centric errors.

Understanding the impact of human behavior

A recent Trend Micro research revealed that 91% of targeted cyberattacks involved personalized or spear-phishing emails. However, organizations face difficulty reducing said risk due to human error and inadequate security awareness training. A single mistake can expose a network to a security breach.

Understanding how humans inadvertently create risks to organizations and how to avoid those risks is essential to business continuity in today’s evolving threat landscape. Such an understanding starts with knowing that cybercriminals will always look for the easiest possible route into a network, often by leveraging human weaknesses. Therefore, organizations must study human behavior and countermeasures in their cybersecurity programs.

The need for behavioral intelligence

Email is the primary means of data loss, and the significant ways include employees’ unintentional and careless data exfiltration through email. A Ponemon Institute research discovered that many organizations suffer data loss and exfiltration due to a negligent employee or an employee mistakenly sending an email to an unintended recipient.

The following list shows the need for behavioral intelligence:

  • Data is most vulnerable in email due to employees’ negligence when using email. When allocating resources, organizations should consider technologies that reduce risk in this medium. They should assign IT security personnel to secure confidential and sensitive data in employees’ emails.
  • When transferred from the network to personal email, the lack of visibility of confidential and sensitive data is a significant barrier to securing sensitive data. Confidential and sensitive information is at risk when organizations lack visibility and cannot detect employee negligence and anomalous data handling behaviors. Therefore, organizations should conduct security awareness training that focuses on the confidentiality and sensitivity of data transmitted in employees’ emails.

Email security best practices you should know about

With so much sensitive organizational information going around business emails, it could be dangerous to have your email exposed. Avoid human factor risks with the following email security practices:

1.   Use a robust email password:

Easy passwords increase the likelihood of account breaches. Unfortunately, technology users tend to get used to a fixed password because of the inconvenience of remembering the changes, but the cyber world is unforgiving. However, a regular password change is one of the most straightforward email security practices.

Consider the following ways when handling your passwords:

  • Use a mix of upper and lower case letters, numbers, and special characters.
  • Leverage phrases for passwords instead of words – phrases are easier to remember but difficult for others to guess.
  • Avoid using personal details associated with a user, such as pet names, student IDs, birthdays, etc.
2.   Apply two-factor authentication (2FA):

2FA prevents threat actors from gaining access to your account even when they manage to guess your password. Instead, they require a code to gain access, usually sent via email, voice call, or SMS. Using 2FA proactively enables organizations to reduce email-related data breaches. In addition, feel free to change your email provider if their email platform doesn’t support 2FA capabilities.

3.   Observe email habits:

Although you might not consider email habits are an item worth observing, they are closely related to human risk factors associated with email data security. Therefore, start by knowing some key metrics about your organization’s email usage (during office hours and off-hours):

  • How much time do you spend on email threads from outside your organization?
  • What external tools, such as API, have users given their email account access to?
  • How frequently does your organization send email messages daily?
  • How often do you revisit your email provider’s service level agreement (SLA)?
4.   Watch out for email phishing campaigns:

Email phishing is one of the numerous ways threat actors employ to steal sensitive data in email accounts. These emails bait you to “log in” to your account, but, in reality, you’re just putting your email, password, and other sensitive information into their systems. Often, business email compromise (BEC) actors rely on phishing tactics to launch initial compromise that places them in the middle of an email thread.

5.   Always scan attachments before opening them:

Have anti-malware tools that allow you to scan attachments. If these programs notify you of a potential problem, then consider deleting the message and blocking the user completely.

6.   Refrain from accessing secured emails from public Wi-Fi:

Public Wi-Fi is never secure. You might invite a hacker directly into your network. Cybercriminals need elementary software to know the information passing through the network. Prevent this by encouraging employees to use mobile internet whenever they’re not in the office.


Many fancy cybersecurity tools in the market today often neglect the importance of human risk factors in cybersecurity operations – a simple tool misconfiguration could introduce intruders into an otherwise protected network. As a result, threat actors focus on compromising the human-centric elements of technology before ever touching the technology itself. Consequently, the best defense against attacks is to ensure that every person in an organization is trained in identifying cybersecurity threats.

Most threat actors understand that the flow of email data is crucial to determining the attack methodology to deploy against a target. As a result, most email-related data breaches involve threat actors leveraging human behavior to access sensitive information. Therefore, organizations should consider using machine learning tools to understand human risk factors introduced into an otherwise secure computing environment. By partnering with a trusted cyber threat intelligence partner, SMBs can effectively implement the intelligence gleaned from automated behavioral intelligence tools.

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