How to Build a Human Firewall (Essential Guide)

Want to start building your organization's human firewall but not sure where to start? Here's our actionable guide to shore up your defenses and reduce human risk.

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Human firewall meaning: what exactly are they?

πŸ“š Quick definition: A human firewall is a collective effort of individuals within an organization to protect against cybersecurity threats.

Human firewalls revolve around the basic principle that every employee plays a crucial role in safeguarding organizations from cyber attacks.

Humans (your employees) are the single largest attack surface for your organization.

And the more of them you have, the greater the security risk.

However, there are measures you can take to mitigate this risk.

This is where human firewalls come in - serving as your first line of defense against cyber threats.

Unlike traditional security measures like technical firewalls and antivirus software, human firewalls are made up of well-trained employees who are equipped to identify and respond to potential cyber risks.

It's a group of employees that support your defense work by actively looking out for potential attacks or malicious emails - reporting anything that they consider dangerous.

The more employees you have onboard, the stronger the human firewall can become.

Most data breaches start with an employee error.

So, educating employees about the habit of reporting suspicious activity to the security team can have transformational effects.

Errors can occur at any time, especially since attack vectors can be complex and advanced...

But with regular training that teaches employees to adopt the habit of reporting, you can minimize the risks of a successful attack.

Stats: why you need a human firewall


The role of employees in defending against security threats

Although humans may be your weakest link, they can also be your best asset when it comes to mitigating potential threats.

Mitigate human error: Human firewalls reduce risk by providing your employees with the knowledge and skills needed to recognize and avoid common cybersecurity threats, such as phishing emails and social engineering attacks.

Detect threats in real-time: While automated security tools can detect known threats, human firewalls will identify new or unique threats that might fly under the radar of traditional detection methods.

Stay adaptable: The threats landscape is always evolving... and there will always be new types of threats and phishing attacks to keep up with. A human firewalls will help you stay ahead of emerging threats by providing ongoing training, awareness programs, and threat intelligence updates to your employees.

Enhance your incident response: In the event of a cybersecurity incident, a solid human firewall strategy can significantly improve response efforts since employees will be (if your firewall is effective) prepared to follow established protocols, report incidents promptly, and take action.

Shift your culture towards security: Building a strong cybersecurity culture within your organization is essential for fostering a collective sense of responsibility and accountability for security. A human firewalls will help fuel this shift by promoting security awareness, encouraging best practices, and reinforcing the importance of cybersecurity.


Assessing your organization's security culture

Your security culture matters...

Your security culture sets the tone for how seriously employees take cybersecurity measures.

According to Tessian's survey, despite 99% of IT and security leaders agreeing that a strong security culture is important in maintaining a strong security posture, three-quarters of organizations experienced a security incident in the last year.

A strong security culture builds a sense of shared responsibility and vigilance that results in employees proactively identifying and mitigating potential attacks.

Gauge where you're at with this quick checklist


  • Is security a priority and a core value of your organization?
  • Do your employees believe that you take security seriously?
  • Are there any internal policies that define your security culture?
  • Do leaders visibly endorse security initiatives?
  • Do you conduct regular reviews of your security culture? Are findings acted upon?
  • Can employees access regular training sessions?
  • Is there a process for reporting potential security incidents?

Internal communication

  • Does your organization communicate security messages to employees (not just your security team)?
  • Is there a process for employee feedback on your organization's security measures?
  • Do all employees receive recognition for positively impacting security?

Cyber security awareness

  • Are employees aware of their security responsibilities?
  • Do you have a process for updating training in line with new threats and phishing attacks?
  • Is security culture built into your training programmes?

Identifying strengths and weaknesses

Once you've assessed your security culture, you can then identify its strengths and weaknesses.

Look at factors such as employee engagement, compliance with security protocols, and responsiveness to security incidents.

Pinpoint any areas where your security culture could use improvement and develop targeted strategies to reinforce positive behaviors and address these vulnerability.


Establishing policies and procedures

Conduct a risk assessment

Start off with a thorough risk assessment to identify potential threats and vulnerabilities.

Make sure to factor in things like the type of data you handle and industry regulations.

Define policy objectives

Outline exactly what you're looking to achieve with your security policies and procedures...

What outcomes would you like to see?

Is it protecting sensitive data? Ensuring compliance with regulations?

Choose a framework that fits your specific needs

Go with a security framework that aligns with your organization's objectives.

Common frameworks include ISO 27001, NIST Cybersecurity Framework, and CIS Controls.

These frameworks will give you a structured approach to developing and implementing your policies and procedures.

Draft policies and procedures

Based on your risk assessment and policy objectives, draft your policies and procedures.

Policies: should outline high-level principles and expectations,

Procedures: should provide detailed instructions for implementing policies.

Make sure you cover key areas

Ensure that your security policies and procedures cover things like:

  • Acceptable use practices
  • Data handling procedures
  • Incident response protocols
  • Employee training requirements

Track and analyse impact

Monitor incidents: Establish a system to monitor and track security breaches, including near misses as well as actual breaches.

Analyze metrics and feedback: Regularly review metrics and feedback to evaluate the effectiveness of your security measures and identify areas that need improvement.

Provide feedback and recognition: Recognize and reward employees who consistently prioritize and demonstrate good security practices.

Communicate policies with employees

Once your policies and procedures are decided on, communicate them effectively to all employees.

You'll also need to make sure you have training in place - which we'll cover in more depth below πŸ‘‡


Still need extra building the foundations of your security culture? We went in-depth in our webinar.



Can you build a human firewall with traditional security awareness training?

The short answer here, is no.

While security awareness training will cover variety of topics related to security best practices and organizational policies, learnings rarely stick with people for a long time.

Even when the training includes some practical exercises, like occasional phishing tests, it's still unlikely to result in behavior change...

And so human vulnerabilities will remain.

Modifying behavior is essential for building a strong human firewall because it is the only way to create a habit when people constantly watch out for potential breaches.

By all means, security awareness programs are still critical and irreplaceable.

But to strengthen participation in avoiding incidents, you need to adopt a more practical approach.

How can you make sure your training is effective?

Real, measurable behavior change is the key to reducing the human element in cyber security.

This is why using a solution like Hoxhunt, AES saw a 526% increase in reporting rate, a 79% decrease in failure rate, and a 58% decrease in miss rate.

And Finland’s biggest telecom company Elisa found that employees who had undergone our training were 20x less likely to click malicious links.

Not seeing outcomes like these? Then you might want to ask yourself the following questions...

Do you positively reinforce good behavior?

One of the main pillars of behavior change is reinforcement.

Continuous reinforcement and repetition will turn behavior into a habit.

Years of data tells us that scaring employees into compliance doesn't work.

What does work, however, is highlight when employees do the right thing or reach their goal with a reward or positive feedback.

FACT: If you give positive feedback to employees who correctly report simulated phishing attacks, they'll be more likely to report real attacks in the future.

Hoxhunt behavior change positive feedback

Is training frequent enough?

The frequency of your training will have a direct impact on its effectiveness.

When shopping around for a vendor, look out for quantity of phishing simulations they deliver annually.

Consistent training and repetitive actions drive a real behavioral change.


A strong human firewall is built on good habits

So, we know that frequency matters when it comes to effective training...

But how frequent should it be exactly?

Quarterly phishing tests won't have the desired effect on people's learning curve.

At Hoxhunt, we send a phishing simulation every 10 days to make sure that people keep learning and they remember what they need to do.

When reporting is frequent enough, our brains will start forming a habit.

The reporting process will become almost like an automated response that people can perform without too much thought.

Motivation and engagement also play important roles in forming the reporting habit.

If the frequent practical training is not engaging enough for the users, they won't be motivated to care to report possibly malicious emails.

However, you can boost motivation and engagement so that people won't actually mind frequent simulations.

There are a few ways to do this...

First off, make sure that your practical training program was created with the users in mind.

Training should be personalized to each user's level so that it matches their skills, knowledge, culture, language, role in the organization, and more.

This is why we built Hoxhunt’s AI engine to generate a unique profile for every user and automatically delivers the most relevant simulations in digestible, bite-sized chunks.

Some people can have very advanced skills in spotting phishing emails, so they will naturally require more challenging simulations.

Others may be quite beginners, so you want to start with easier examples so that they can succeed and gain confidence.

Positivity also plays a pretty significant role in getting people on-side to fight against attacks.

You can further boost motivation by spicing up the training with gamification. We have just recently published an article on why our brains love game-like elements and how that can stimulate us to participate and learn.


Challenges you might face (and how to overcome them)

Challenge Solution
Resistance to change Employees may resist adopting new security practices if they belive they're an inconvenience. Implement a comprehensive change management plan that includes clear communication, training sessions, and ongoing support to help employees understand the importance of cybersecurity and ease their transition to new practices.
Lack of executive support Without visible support and advocacy from organizational leadership, your efforts to build a human firewall may struggle to gain traction. Secure buy-in from executive leadership by articulating the business case for cybersecurity investment and demonstrating the potential impact of security breaches on the organization's reputation, finances, and regulatory compliance.
Limited resources You may face budget constraints or resource limitations that hinder your ability to implement comprehensive cybersecurity initiatives.. After assessing where you're at, prioritize cybersecurity investments based on risk assessments and allocate resources strategically to address the most critical areas of vulnerability.


Does the human firewall provide 100% protection?

Just as email-filtering solutions do not provide 100% protection, your human firewall won't prevent every threat.

No matter how well trained your employees are, errors can always occur.

If a fraudulent email finds a person at the wrong time when they're tired after a long day, this can be enough for a successful phishing attack.

This doesn't mean that a human firewall isn't an absolutely necessary layer of security.

Counting on your employees to become dedicated to reporting is the best option you have when it comes to to strengthening your defenses.

At some point, your organization may be breached.

And if this does happen, the best thing you can do is to try to make bad actors' jobs harder by reinforcing the reporting skills of your employees and building a culture of security awareness where everyone is responsible for fighting back attacks.


Measurably change behavior with Hoxhunt

Want to reduce human cyber risk? Hoxhunt was built to provide individualized phishing training, automated security awareness training and advanced behavior change - all in one human risk management platform.

  • 20x lower failure rates
  • 90%+ engagement rates
  • 75%+ detect rates
Hoxhunt human risk platform


Human firewall FAQ

What is a human firewall?

A human firewall is the concept of empowering employees to serve as a frontline defense against cyber threats by fostering a security-conscious culture and promoting best practices for cybersecurity awareness and behavior.

How can organizations build a human firewall?

Building a human firewall involves implementing strategies such as cybersecurity training and awareness programs, creating clear security policies and procedures, promoting a culture of security awareness, and providing ongoing support and reinforcement for security behaviors.

What does an human firewall look like?

Here are 6 characteristics of a strong human firewall

  1. Vigilance: An effective human firewall is constantly alert and vigilant against threats such as phishing emails, social engineering attempts, and suspicious website links.
  2. Knowledgeable: Employees in the human firewall are well-trained and knowledgeable about cybersecurity best practices, including how to identify phishing attempts, create strong passwords, and recognize potential security risks.
  3. Proactive: Rather than waiting for threats to occur, the human firewall takes proactive measures to prevent cyber attacks by reporting suspicious activities and adhering to security protocols.
  4. Resilient: Even in the face of sophisticated attack methods, an effective human firewall remains resilient and adaptive, quickly responding to emerging threats and mitigating potential risks to your organization's security posture.
  5. Compliant: Members of the human firewall understand and adhere to relevant cybersecurity policies, regulations, and compliance requirements to ensure the organization's data and systems remain secure and compliant with industry standards.
  6. Continuous improvement: An effective human firewall is committed to continuous improvement, regularly participating in training sessions and staying updated on the latest security technologies and practices.

How can organizations measure the effectiveness of their human firewall?

Effectiveness of a human firewall can be measured through metrics such as the frequency of security incidents, employee participation and engagement in training programs, success rates in identifying and reporting phishing attempts, and overall improvement in security awareness and behavior across the organization.

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