HR Must Evolve to Fight Complex Cyber Threats

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By Genevieve Douglas

Human resources information systems can be a “gold mine” for hackers, and it’s more important than ever for HR to fight increasingly complex threats to employee data, practitioners told Bloomberg BNA.

“HR employees are the first line of defense against fraud” and hacking that is committed through telephone calls, phishing e-mails, fake websites and other avenues, Jim DeGraw, a partner in Ropes & Gray’s corporate technology group in San Francisco, told Bloomberg BNA Jan. 4.

While there’s always been a risk in the age of computers, the cyber threats are more apparent and numerous than in the past, from crime rings to foreign actors, and even to employees within an organization. And today’s cybersecurity breaches may look a bit different than those of the past.

DeGraw cited an incident of fraud perpetrated through false access to W-2 forms. A number of organizations were hit by a scam involving a convincing-looking e-mail that supposedly came from the CEO to a junior employee asking for W-2 forms, he said.

As a result of the junior employee complying with the fake request, a number of employees had false tax returns filed by the bad actors, resulting in a “personal nightmare” for the workers and a “total embarrassment” for the company, he said. “Cybersecurity threats are not just people trying to infiltrate computers through firewalls in ways that employees can’t see,” DeGraw noted.

To avoid these kinds of breaches, companies need to have a culture where employees feel they can ask questions, DeGraw recommended. “If you don’t have a culture where people can question, and just have to respond, then there’s a problem,” he said.

Additionally, security policies should include components for messaging and training employees, employee awareness, rewards for good decisions and discipline for negligence. There need to be consequences to bad actions by employees who are intending fraud or who should have known better, he said.

A ‘Complex Web’ of Permissions

One particular challenge that has appeared as companies become increasingly digitized is that HR must keep track of employee data as it flows to many different applications, Al Sargent, senior director of product marketing for security software provider OneLogin, told Bloomberg BNA Jan. 3.

“From an HR risk perspective, this is a really big challenge,” Sargent said. HR is tasked with figuring out who can see the information in disparate areas of the company, and that can be an incredibly “complex web of permissions.”

To further complicate the matter, “a lot of HR professionals aren’t even aware of this,” Sargent said.

Not only should HR be in control of who is accessing employee data, this is a compliance concern as well, he said. Many companies don’t realize how many applications they’re using, so the risk to the information is underestimated.

One way to manage permissions is to use HR information systems that can automatically determine who may access which applications through employees’ titles, departments or level of management. “It’s proving to be a very accurate way” of navigating the complexity of permissions, Sargent said.

Employee Education Is Best Defense

Fighting cyber risks requires all employees to be vigilant, Jonathan Katz, director of the Maryland Cybersecurity Center and a professor at the University of Maryland’s Department of Computer Science, told Bloomberg BNA Jan. 3.

HR must work to educate employees not only about their activity at work, but also about securing their personal accounts. “If you use one password on an external service that is breached, and use that password at work, it won’t be hard to figure out,” he said.

HR is aware of cyber threats and of the importance of stopping breaches, but it faces challenges, Katz said. For one thing, getting information to the executive suite can be difficult and requires executives to possess a knowledge of cybersecurity that they may not have.

In addition, there aren’t a lot of great resources available for teaching people the skill set needed to fight cyber threats, so organizations should hire dedicated employees to perform this task, Katz said.

It ultimately comes down to the people, he said. It’s one thing to be aware and know what has to be done, and then employers must strive to train every employee to comply.

Despite these efforts, however, the average worker may not be able to live up to the demands, and employers will likely need better technological innovations to manage the complexity of the problem, he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Genevieve Douglas in Washington, D.C. at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tony Harris at

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