Making an Impact with Security Awareness Training: Quick Wins and Sustained Impact

By Mike Rothman

Our last post explained Continuous Contextual Content as a means to optimize the effectiveness of a security awareness program. CCC acknowledges that users won’t get it, at least not initially. That means you need to reiterate your lessons over and over (and probably over) again. But when should you do that? Optimally when their receptivity is high – when they just made a mistake.

So you determine the relative risk of users, and watch for specific actions or alerts. When you see such behavior, deliver the training within the context of what they see then. But that’s not enough. You want to track the effectiveness of your training (and your security program) to get a sense of what works and what doesn’t. If you can’t close the loop on effectiveness, you have no idea whether your efforts are working, or how to continue improving your program.

To solidify the concepts, let’s go through a scenario which works through the process step by step. Let’s say you work for a large enterprise in the financial industry. Senior management increasingly worries about ransomware and data leakage. A recent penetration test showed that your general security controls are effective, but in their phishing simulation over half your employees clicked a fairly obvious phish. And it’s a good thing your CIO has a good sense of humor, because the pen tester gained full access to his machine via a well crafted drive-by attack which would have worked against the entire senior team.

So your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to implement security awareness training for the company. Let’s go!

Start with Urgency

As mentioned, your company has a well-established security program. So you can hit the ground running, using your existing baseline security data. Next identify the most significant risks and triage immediate action to start addressing them. Acting with urgency serves two purposes. It can give you a quick win, and we all know how important it is to show value immediately. As a secondary benefit you can start to work on training employees on a critical issue right away.

Your pen test showed that phishing poses the worst problems for your organization, so that’s where you should focus initial efforts. Given the high-level support for the program, you cajole your CEO into recording a video discussing the results of the phishing test and the importance of fixing the issue. A message like this helps everyone understand the urgency of addressing the problem and that the CEO will be watching.

Following that, every employee completes a series of five 3-5 minute training videos walking them through the basics of email security, with a required test at the end. Of course it’s hard to get 100% participation in anything, so you’ve already established consequences for those who choose not to complete the requirement. And the security team is available to help people who have a hard time passing.

It’s a balance between being overly heavy-handed against the importance of training users to defend themselves. You need to ensure employees know about the ongoing testing program, and that they’ll be testing periodically. That’s the continuous part of the approach – it’s not a one-time thing.

Introduce Contextual Training

As you execute on your initial phishing training effort, you also start to integrate your security awareness training platform with existing email, web, and DNS security services. This integration involves receiving an alert when an employee clicks a phishing message, automatically signing them up for training, and delivering a short (2-3 minute) refresher on email security. Of course contextual training requires flexibility, because an employee might be in the middle of a critical task. But you can establish an expectation that a vulnerable employee needs to complete training that day.

Similarly, if an employee navigates to a known malicious site, the web security service sends a trigger, and the web security refresher runs for that employee. The key is to make sure the interruption is both contextual and quick. The employee did this, so they need training immediately. Even a short delay will reduce the training’s effectiveness.

Additionally, you’ll be running ongoing training and simulations with employees. You’ll perform some analysis to pinpoint the employees who can’t seem to stop clicking things. These employees can get more intensive training, and escalation if they continue to violate corporate policies and put data at risk.

Overhaul Onboarding

After initial triage and integration with your security controls, you’ll work with HR to overhaul the training delivered during their onboarding process. You are now training employees continuously, so you don’t need to spend 3 hours teaching them about phishing and the hazards of clicking links.

Then onboarding can shift, to focus on establishing a culture of security from Day 1. This entails educating new employees on online and technology policies, and acceptable use expectations. You also have an opportunity to set expectations for security awareness training. Make clear that employees will be tested on an ongoing basis, and inform them who sees the results (their managers, etc.), along with the consequences of violating acceptable use policies.

Again, a fine line exists between being draconian and setting clear expectations. If the consequences have teeth (as they should), employees must know, and sign off on their understanding. We also recommend you test each new employee within a month of their start date to ensure they comprehend security expectations and retained their initial lessons.

Start a Competition

Once your program settles in over six months or so, it’s time to shake things up again. You can set up a competition, inviting the company to compete for the Chairperson’s Security Prize. Yes, you need to get the Chairperson on board for this, but that’s usually pretty easy because it helps the company. The prize needs to be impactful, and more than bragging rights. Maybe you can offer the winning department an extra day of holiday for the year. And a huge trophy. Teams love to compete for trophies they can display prominently in their area.

You’ll set the ground rules, including an internal red team and hunting team attacking each group. You’ll be tracking how many employees fall for the attacks and how many report the issues. Your teams can try physically breaching the facilities as well. You want the attacks to dovetail with ongoing security training and testing initiatives to reinforce security culture.

Run Another Simulation

You’ll also want to stage a widespread simulation a few months after the initial foray. Yes, you’ll be continuously testing employees as part of your continuous program. But getting a sense of company-wide results is also helpful. You should compare results from the initial test against the new results. Are fewer employees falling for the ruse? Are more reporting spammy and phishing emails to the central group? Ensuring the trend lines are moving in the right direction boosts the program and helps justify ongoing investment. You feed the results into the team scoring of the competition.

Lather, Rinse, Repeat

At some point, when another high-profile issue presents itself, you should take a similar approach. Let’s say your organization does a lot of business in Europe, so GDPR presents significant risk. You’ll want to train employees on how you define customer data and how to handle it.

Next determine whether you need special training for this issue, or whether you can integrate it into your more extensive bi-annual training for all employees. Every six months all employees sit for perhaps an hour, watching an update on both new hacker tactics and changes to corporate security policies.

Once that round of training completes, you will roll out new tests to highlight how customer data could be lost or stolen. Factor the new tests into your next competition as well, to keep focus on the changing nature of security and the ongoing contest.

Sustaining Impact

Once your program is humming along, we suggest you pick a new high priority topic every six months to make that the focus of your semi-annual scheduled training. As part of addressing this new topic, you’ll integrate with the relevant controls to enable ongoing contextual training and perform an initial test (to establish a baseline), and then track improvement over time.

You’ll also want a more comprehensive set of reports to track the effectiveness of your awareness training; deliver this information to senior management, and perhaps the audit committee. Maybe each quarter you’ll report on how much contextual training employees received, and how much or little they repeated mistakes after training. You’ll also want to report on the overall number of successful attacks, alongside trends of which attacks worked and which got blocked. Being able to map those results back to training topics makes an excellent case for ongoing investment.

At some point the competition will end and you’ll crown the winner. We suggest making a big deal of the winning team. Maybe you can record the award ceremony with the chairperson and memorialize their victory in the company newsletter. You want to make sure all employees understand security is essential and visible at the highest echelons of your organization.

It’s a journey, not a destination, so ensure consistency in your program. Add new focus topics to extend your employee knowledge, keep your content current and interesting, and hold your employees to a high standard – make sure they understand expectations and the consequences of violating corporate policies. Building a security culture requires patience, persistence, and accountability. Anchoring your security awareness training program with continuous, contextual content will go a long way to establishing such a security culture.

With that we wrap up this series on Making an Impact with Security Awareness Training. Thanks again to Mimecast for licensing this content, and we’ll have the assembled and edited paper available in our Research Library within a couple weeks.

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