Chapter Five

Information Security Awareness Training: The Key to Optimizing Incident Response

Security is everyone's job. Seriously.

Despite the great leaps in innovation we’ve witnessed over the past few decades, nothing beats a human being’s common sense and good judgment. In fact, pragmatism, common sense and good judgment are a few values that aren’t yet possible to develop in software code or artificial intelligence.

The truth is, you can’t automate intuition. And much of the incident responder’s job comes down to relying on your and each employee’s intuition that something in that email just doesn’t look quite right (as an example). Your goal is to reduce the number and impact of cases when someone’s bad judgment, mistakes, and oversights open the gate to a possible breach. It could happen from clicking on an embedded link in an email, or a social engineering scam over the phone.

However it happens, you won’t find the answer in some sort of magic pill - like information security awareness software downloaded to your brain a la Trinity in the Matrix. That’s why you need an information security awareness training program. And yes, like many things in incident response, hearing that phrase is likely to inspire a yawn or two. And a sigh, and maybe throw in a few eye rolls too, while you’re at it.

But it doesn’t have to. There are a few tools, resources, and program ideas that can make information security awareness training effective and engaging for your employees. And that’s what we’ll cover in this chapter.

Incident Response Training vs. Security Awareness Training

We recommend having two different training programs: one for the overall employee population and one that’s specifically for the incident responder. As for any specialized set of skills, incident response training should focus on all aspects of the job, the IR process, as well as the specific technical skills (programming, systems administration, and code analysis) to support whatever technologies or computing contexts that are relevant for your company.

Within this guide, we’re focused on the more broad topic of security awareness training, because we’ve seen that improving the security awareness of everyone in your company will have a big impact on reducing the number and cost of security incidents. We’re also hoping that this entire guide provides a rich foundational resource for training the members of your IR team.

What Exactly Do Employees Need to Know About Security? How Much Is Too Much?

It’s a great question and one that requires we return to our primary goal for security awareness training: to reduce the number and impact of high risk security incidents. So let’s focus on the biggest risk first: phishing and spear-phishing.

Phishing and spear-phishing attacks are the most common way that employees can be manipulated into exposing your company to risk. These social engineering scams are responsible for many of the high profile breaches you’ve likely already heard of. The key difference between phishing and spear-phishing is that spear-phishing is customized and targeted to a specific employee and company, whereas phishing is more broad and automated, less sophisticated and less specific.

Defending against both types of attacks requires vigilance and awareness on the part of every employee. Remember to keep your training content and approach focused on teaching skills and good judgment vs. teaching the technical aspects of how phishing works on the back end, or esoteric topics like the differences between a rootkit, a bot, and a keystroke logger.

Show employees a few examples of phishing and spear-phishing scams, and encourage them to be suspicious, even if an email may appear to be from someone they know. You may also wish to consider incorporating simulated phishing attacks to educate employees about appropriate security behaviors, measure the effectiveness of your training program, and identify any knowledge gaps.

What's the difference.

Security Awareness Training Goals & Metrics

Trying to increase “awareness” around any topic is somewhat dubious. How do you measure how “aware” someone is? Hopefully by their behavior, and with any luck, by the reduction in the number of incidents and exposures you keep having to respond to.

Creating good security metrics is an art unto itself, and while there are many things that generate numbers that can be tracked, good metrics don’t just speak to what has been done, but how well it was done – they enable the future, not recount the past.

That said, here are a few sample indicators for increased awareness and effective training:

  • Track help desk tickets, and expect to see an increase in employees reporting suspicious events and activity. This wouldn’t necessarily be because there are more suspicious events happening, simply that employees are more sensitive to them, and feel confident in reporting them.
  • Explore non-traditional training methods like simulation exercises to test an employee’s resistance to social engineering scams, and then measure progress on a quarter-by-quarter basis. However, work with your communications team to give everyone ample heads up, to maintain trust and transparency between employees and the infosec team.

Information Security Awareness Training: Top Seven Tips

Get executive buy-in. Early and often.
It’s a universal truth that the executive team sets the tone for the entire company, for every team, and every project. If you want your security awareness training program to be successful, involve the management team at every stage, and ask for their visible participation and support.
Culture, context & continuity are essential.
Encourage your management team to instill a security-aware culture where everyone sees security as a part of their job. Most insiders agree that “once and done” doesn’t work for security so look for “teaching moments” in daily business operations. For example, attack simulation exercises provide the most realistic context for the actual risky situations that employees will find themselves in, and often provide one of the most valuable teaching methods.
Be clear. Use real-world scenarios & applications.
You’re trying to raise awareness and change behavior, and the more real, relevant, and compelling you can make it, the more traction you’ll have. Don’t overcomplicate things, and don’t try to address every possible situation that could happen, because it’s simply not possible.
Try to avoid a long boring list of “Don’t’s.
The “Just Say No” approach is old skool in a bad way, like Nancy Reagan and shoulder pads. And it doesn’t work. Instead, show how to do something securely and opt for a scenario-based education approach. Remember, your goal is to instill good skills and habits vs. rote memorization. Keep the content fresh and engaging because if employees are bored, they won’t remember anything.
Give good reasons. Explain security guidelines.
Explain why a user’s credentials are so valuable and how important it is to safeguard them. This is a much better approach than simply being frustrated when you hear user’s complain about the password policy. Once an employee understands why there are certain security controls, they’ll be more likely to respect them, and apply similar principles to any new “high risk” situations.
Consider role-specific risk-based security training.
Training is at its most meaningful when it’s tightly linked with an employee’s role within the company, in the context of the risks they face in fulfilling that role. For example, someone in sales may need more training on how to protect company data and equipment while traveling than someone in engineering would.
Be creative. Include multiple channels & formats.
There is no “one size fits all” approach to security awareness, and there’s no one single training tool that will accommodate all topics or audiences. Most companies have also found that the annual “death by PowerPoint” approach no longer works. As long as it fits your company culture, think about incorporating a security awareness game at the next company retreat. Remember to use newsletters, posters, blogs, and other media as ways to get the message out.

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