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Why is the HR sector so vulnerable to cyber-attacks? And how can they prepare for the worst?

Today, Human Resource departments and standalone companies providing outsourced HR support are at the frontline in the war against cybercriminals. And it’s easy to understand why. HR and recruitment agencies receive thousands of emails and file attachments from job seekers and aspiring talent. Because there is no way HR staff can avoid reading the emails or opening file attachments this vulnerability makes them an ideal target for cyber criminals and hackers.

tangram puzzle blocks with people icons

The HR department of any organisation also holds vast amounts sensitive personal data and financial information that by itself makes them a prime target for cyber criminals. There’s personally identifiable information such as home addresses, bank details, dates of birth and National Insurance numbers that criminals can collect and use for their nefarious activities. Not only can they attack, or target employees personally, but also use this information to launch phishing attacks against the business or its partners in the future.


In fact, this is exactly what happened in 2018 when a well-known UK business’ online recruitment system became the target of a cyber-attack. The following data leak exposed biographical and contact details stored in their databases, which subsequently affected other parts of their organisation. The cost to the business is estimated to have been in the hundreds of thousands of pounds to fix.


Recruitment agencies and HR teams also store intellectual property such as scans of personal documents and a list of top talent for a particular job role or industry, for example. All in all, with the threat of cyber attacks continuing to rise, the Human Resources team needs to know what to do should the worst happen. And that is what Incident Response is all about.


What is incident response?

The first sign of a cyber-attack may be a member of staff asking, ‘Why can’t I open my files?’ But remember that most cyber-attacks are conducted by stealth, and they will not always want to be found. So, the first consideration is ‘Do we have a process to proactively look for cyber-attacks even when everything is operating normally?’ As a member of the ECRC you will receive free updates about vulnerabilities that have been flagged by other organisations specifically to help the wider community. Including you.


Unfortunately, the first time that an organisation discovers they need an Incident Response Plan often coincides with the realisation that they don’t actually have one. The plan itself is simply a document containing the details of key personnel who you can contact if you are worried that you have been victim of a cyber-attack. It also contains key information to help you move through the various stages of containment and then recovery. Having a good response plan means that you are more likely to come through the experience more quickly and efficiently and with less of your systems exposed to the hack. And the responsibility for establishing and maintaining a plan is down to the business owner and not the managed service provider you use for your IT.


If you find that you have been breached, you may never find out exactly how – what is important is that at that point the criminals still have access to your network. The wrong decisions now could have a devastating effect on your business, and you could face additional, financial, and reputational loss if you don’t make the right decisions next.


As can be seen in the below diagram you will start in the triage stage of the breach, trying to figure out what the scale of the breach is and the impact now and in the future.

incident response diagram

What can I do now?

Increasingly cyber experts are accepting that blocking all cyber-attacks is not an achievable outcome and that it makes sense to be prepared for when the breach occurs. Being well prepared for a breach is a key step in making yourself resilient in the online world. To save you the time of having to start one from scratch – go to our tools section and download an incident plan for free. All you have to do is read it and fill in the key bits of information and you have a document that you can rely on if the worst actually happens.


Practice Practice Practice

Once you’ve got an incident response plan prepared the next stage to establish your readiness is to try it out in a safe environment. The National Cyber Security Centre’s Exercise in a Box is an excellent starting point. This exercise will help you to check out how well you and your business can respond to a cyber-attack. You could even speak to us about completing a Cyber Business Continuity Review with one of our students.


So, what should I do now?

Here at the centre, we would advise you to do three things now.

  1. Join our free community membership and you will be supported through implementing the changes you need to make to protect your business and your customers.

  2. For all organisations in the Eastern region we would recommend that you look at improving you overall cyber resilience through the free Little Steps pathway we provide to Cyber Essentials – the basic government backed kite mark standard for cyber security. As a free member we will take you as far as the CE accreditation process. And remember that a company operating under Cyber Essentials processes is 99% protected either fully or partially from today’s common cyber-attacks. And if you want to pay for the assessment, we can refer you one of our Trusted Partners – all regionally based cyber security companies that can help you become accredited.

  3. We would also recommend that you speak to your Managed Service Provider and / or website company to discuss how they can implement cyber resilience measures on your behalf.

Reporting Cyber Crime

Report all Fraud and Cybercrime to Action Fraud by calling 0300 123 2040 or online. Forward suspicious emails to report@phishing.gov.uk. Report SMS scams by forwarding the original message to 7726 (spells SPAM on the keypad).



The contents of this website are provided for general information only and are not intended to replace specific professional advice relevant to your situation. The intention of The Cyber Resilience Centre for the East is to encourage cyber resilience by raising issues and disseminating information on the experiences and initiatives of others. Articles on the website cannot by their nature be comprehensive and may not reflect most recent legislation, practice, or application to your circumstances. The Cyber Resilience Centre for the East provides affordable services and Trusted Partners if you need specific support. For specific questions please contact us.

The Cyber Resilience Centre for the East does not accept any responsibility for any loss which may arise from reliance on information or materials published on this document. The Cyber Resilience Centre for the East is not responsible for the content of external internet sites that link to this site or which are linked from it.

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