Human Error: Bigger Problem than Disasters

The threat of disasters, such as fires, floods and hurricanes, is enough to keep IT managers awake at night. Ironically, a recent study quantified how disasters are not the leading cause of data loss: human error is.

The threat of disasters, such as fires, floods and hurricanes, is enough to keep IT managers awake at night. Accordingly, most large companies implement broad disaster recovery solutions that cost big dollars and require significant time and manpower to implement, configure and maintain. Ironically, a recent study quantified how disasters are not the leading cause of data loss: human error is.

"Human error is three times more potent a data destroyer than all viruses, floods, lightning bolts, earthquakes and hurricanes combined," contends Phil Proffitt, director of research at Broadcasters Network International (BNI), a market research firm. "One accidental deletion, for instance, can be as devastating as a natural disaster."

Case in point: An IT worker for the city of Oakland, Calif., accidentally deleted 15 years of CAD/CAM files in one fell swoop.

BNI conducted a study that found as much as 66 percent of data loss is caused by human error. Hardware failure, at 26 percent, was a distant second.

Of the mistakes humans make, BNI’s study found accidental deletions to be the most prevalent. When asked how often data loss due to deleted files came up as a problem, more than half of the system administrators surveyed responded that they encountered accidental deletions daily to once a month.

"Companies can have the best, most redundant fail-safe hardware solution on the market, but even a solution that is never going to stop running doesn’t buy anything in terms of [preventing] human error," says John Butler, president and CEO of Network Integrity (, a provider of real-time continuous backup solutions. "If a user tells the system to delete a file, the system deletes the file."

According to BNI’s study, accidental deletions are more common in Windows NT environments than on other operating systems. One reason for this peculiarity, Proffitt says, is that Windows NT end users are not as aware of the operating system’s capabilities as they should be.

"NT end users are typically less techno-savvy, because the OS doesn’t demand all that much in that regard," says Patrick Seeber, director of IS at Navellier Financial Services (, a financial services company and publisher of financial newsletters.

For instance, Proffitt says a healthy percentage of end users do not know that the recycle bin only catches files deleted that were resident on the end user’s hard drive. When deleting network files, users generally don't consider whether that file will be retrievable via the recycle bin or not.

Another reason for the prevalence of data loss on Windows NT networks is that the operating system lacks a utility for recovering lost network files. When it comes to the Word, Excel or PowerPoint files that represent much of the work end users do, Windows NT lacks a built-in utility to recover accidentally deleted files, especially if they are stored on a corporate network.

There are third-party products on the market that are designed to recover deleted files: Symantec Corp. ( has UnErase, a file recovery tool; Network Undelete from Executive Software ( can be used to recover deleted network files; and Software Shelf International ( sells File Rescue.

"Most people delete a file and say ‘Oh my God, that was a week’s worth of work’ and then they start looking for a product to recover the file, rather than installing the product as preventative medicine," says Bill Feeley, president of Software Shelf.

Recovering files that end users accidentally delete can take administrators anywhere from 15 minutes to several days. And only about half the companies in BNI’s study offer lost file recovery for end users, unless a particular user has the clout that comes with the titles president or CEO.

"Most organizations know that to some extent backing up client systems can be a pricey situation," says Morgan Edwards, president and CEO of BEI Software (, a manufacturer of backup software and disaster recovery solutions.

Network Integrity’s Butler, Software Shelf’s Feeley and BEI’s Edwards agree that the best method available today to prevent accidental deletion is education. Alerting end users to the ramifications of accidentally deleting files and making sure they understand Windows capabilities are the best way to avoid the problem, they concur. They also suggest restricting access to mission-critical data. The fewer users, the less chance of accidental deletions.

"In some cases, you can engineer the software to save end users from themselves, but not always," Edwards says. "Accidental deletion is still a problem that software doesn’t solve easily."