How To Fortify Your Organization’s Last Layer of Security – Your Employees

May 7, 2019

The central goal of security education is to modify an employee’s behavior so he or she doesn’t fall for social engineering — the art of manipulating, influencing or deceiving somebody to take an action that isn’t in either his or his organization’s best interests. The most common examples of social engineering are phishing and spear-phishing attacks, which use the phone, email, postal services or direct contact to try to trick people into doing something harmful.

“Interactive computer-based training is a central component of comprehensive security education and behavior management program,” according to Gartner. “It is a mechanism for the delivery of a learning experience through computing devices, such as laptop computers, tablets, smartphones and Internet of Things (IoT) devices. The focus and structure of the content delivered by CBT vary, as do the duration of individual CBT modules and the type of computing endpoints supported.

Understanding the diversity of people in the organization is as important to security and risk management leaders as an understanding of how security fits into an organization’s larger goals.”

“that employee definitely has an ‘Aha!’ moment because a big screw-up caused major problems”

The aim of most social engineering schemes is to get somebody to click on a hyperlink or open an attachment sent in an email that will then give the bad guys access to the user’s computer. Showing a trainee how to recognize that out of nearly 20 types of files an email attachment could come in, the only one that is absolutely safe to open is a file ending in .txt can be a security game changer. Providing short, three- or four-question quizzes at regular intervals during a training module helps employees review and reinforce their understanding of particular training elements and can increase their trust in the impact the course is having and motivate them to complete it, thanks to congratulatory messages after each quiz.

Human beings can become an organization’s last layer of defense only when security awareness training demonstrates to them how susceptible they are to social engineering, which is considered to be the single greatest security risk in the coming decade, much more than electronic hacking. The FBI has reported a 2,370 percent increase in exposed losses between January 2015 and December 2016 from social engineering schemes such as CEO fraud, also known as Business Email Compromise (BEC). A total of more than $5 billion has been stolen from businesses through cyber theft from October 2013 through December 2016, with an average loss per incident of $100,000 and are projected to top $9 billion in 2018.

Training exercises that tell a compelling story and put the trainee in the position of somebody who has been targeted, such as a company’s controller, engage all the senses by making the trainee choose the best course of action in response to a suspicious email. When he has the opportunity to select the wrong response to an attack, “that employee definitely has an ‘Aha!’ moment because a big screw-up caused major problems” for his organization, says Kevin Mitnick, chief hacking officer for IT security company KnowBe4, provider of new-school security awareness training.

These exercises teach employees to carefully check all the details in an email for telltale signs of potentially malicious content: a “From” address with a misspelling, a hyperlink that when you pass your cursor over it reveals the actual URL destination you will be taken to (and that will infect your computer), and the suggestion of negative consequences if an action isn’t taken quickly and before confirming the email’s veracity.

Learning that dangerous emails often appear to come from reputable organizations or from someone you know and trust within your own organization drives home the lesson: think before you click. Making training interactive ensures it takes deeper root in an employee’s mind.

The ultimate goal of simulated phishing attacks is to train people’s reflexes so they learn the optimal response to such emails. “This is like learning how to catch a ball or to do any complex move that the human body might want to do, but this is doing it mentally,” says Perry Carpenter, chief evangelist and strategy officer at KnowBe4. “That means putting somebody in the situation where they’re having to make that decision and use that behavior that we actually want somebody to have embedded over and over again so it becomes something that doesn’t feel uncommon or different from their normal decision-making, but is integrated with and will just naturally become their pattern of habit.”

Security education should start with phishing emails that use a method that is very easy to detect, and then gradually escalate to more challenging simulated attacks in order to fully inoculate employees against all kinds of phishing attacks. This will help them understand how persistent bad guys are in sending increasingly sophisticated attacks until they can trick somebody.

The idea is to repeat variations of the exercise continuously so a trainee has a chance to fail in a safe environment and be redirected to a form of corrective behavior, Carpenter says. “Even more important is to have multiple successes, multiple times to show themselves that they know how to detect a phish and report it so they have that behavior ingrained within the way that they do business every day.”

How to change organizational culture

Changes in behavior cannot be sustained by an organization’s culture without continuous reinforcement. For example, you can reduce the rate at which an employee clicks on a phishing email link to the low single digits from an initial 27% average percent level after training and repeated testing. However, “if you just leave that alone and never train them again, you’re going to see it creep back up for a couple reasons,” Carpenter warns.

First, the stimulus for reinforced behavioral patterns disappears once you take away the immediate feedback an employee gets when s/he successfully recognizes a simulated phishing attack. Second, on the organizational level, the natural churn of personnel as some people leave the organization while others join it translates to a smaller percentage of employees who have been trained rigorously in security awareness.

Then there is behavioral drift over time because nothing is being done to help employees sustain new habits they have learned regarding an approach to emails they receive. Think of seasonal circumstances that can push against an employee’s heightened security awareness and his resulting behavior.

“Science says it takes 66 days to formulate a behavior or to change a behavior, so that two-month period I’m pushing on basically creating an entirely new habit,”

For example, “I’m in retail. It’s the holiday season. I’m getting 300 more emails a day than I naturally would get, and I’m just trying to knock stuff out, so I’m naturally going to get a little more careless,” Carpenter says. In the retail world, holiday season lasts at least two months, from early November until New Year’s Day.

“Science says it takes 66 days to formulate a behavior or to change a behavior, so that two-month period I’m pushing on basically creating an entirely new habit,” he explains. “When January comes around after holiday season, my behavior has shifted to whatever the new norm was unless I was constantly training. And now this person is not thinking again as they open and answer emails.”

Security education is also an opportunity to strengthen communications within an organization so that employees become less susceptible to social engineering attacks. For example, if the HR and IT departments start to issue advance warnings about changes to email or other systems that are coming down the pike and what to expect in terms of updating login credentials, staff members  will grow more suspicious of unexpected emails posing as such updates and trying to trick them into sharing personal information. Establishing clear procedures for things like suspicious emails such as reporting it immediately to the IT department, also helps recondition employee behavior.

Given that the ultimate aim is to retrain employees’ reflexes regarding online behavior, it’s imperative that managers respond to training results in a constructive, nurturing way instead of a punishing one.

“If somebody fails one or even a few times, that shouldn’t mean that we come down on them and we shake our finger in their face and tell them how bad they are,” says Carpenter. “They’re failing because they’re human, and we’re putting them in a situation that tests their humanity in a lot of ways. And we’re putting them in that [situation] because we know that this is the natural default behavior that people have and we’re trying to shift it.”

Mitnick agrees it’s better to take a carrot approach to encourage people to take security as self-interest in what they’re doing. “People don’t really care about security unless it’s in their self-interest. They could be worried about their job or about protecting their own data. They could just want to do the right thing for the company because obviously they don’t want the company victimized.” The key is to turn an employee’s mistakes into teachable moments that further strengthen an organization last layer of defense.


Recommended Action Items

Be realistic about what is achievable in the short term and optimistic about the long-term payoff. If your goal is behavior change, focus on 2 to 3 behaviors for 12 to 18 months at a time. You can’t effectively train on everything.

Plan like a marketer, and test like an attacker. Starting with communications such as executive messages and videos, department manager messages and security town halls, conduct phishing and social engineering testing through LMS modules, and reinforce through regular newsletters and digital signage.

View Awareness through the vision of organizational culture. Focus on understanding the different personalities, drivers and learning styles within your organization. Complete a list of recommended tasks that are designed based on feedback in your company’s staff questionnaire. This will let you personalize your approach and get the most out of your Security Awareness Program. Tasks may include engaging your organization’s stakeholders, creating and completing a baseline phishing campaign, communicating the Security Awareness Program to your employees, reviewing and selecting a primary training module, and creating training campaigns for your quarterly training modules.

Leverage behavior management principles to help shape good security hygiene. Embrace best practices such as (a) formulating goals before starting, (b) getting the executive team involved, (c) prioritizing and making your messages and training relevant, (d) phishing frequently, at a minimum of once a month and (e) testing frequently to build security reflexes.

Have a vision of what “good” looks like for your organization. Build a network of “security champions” inclusive of all roles and geographic regions across the enterprise. Present to candidates the role of a champion as a developmental opportunity and integrate it into performance and career development plans.

Changing employee behavior to be less susceptible to social engineering requires a consistent and repeatable approach to security education. Security awareness training done right engages users and moves their natural “reflexes” from being unaware of being proactive and competent in identifying potentially hazardous social engineering tactics. Successful behavioral change starts with clear communication to employees on why security education is important that also aligns with an organization’s unique culture and workplace dynamics. Rolling out a realistic security awareness training program will empower users to protect themselves and be part of the solution in fortifying an organization’s last layer of security.

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