Welcome to this week’s Tip of the Hat!
October is a very important month. Not only does October mean Halloween (candy), it also means Cybersecurity Awareness Month. This month’s TotH posts will focus on privacy’s popular sibling, security. We start this month by focusing on one common “trick” – phishing – and why not all cybersecurity training is created equal.
We wrote more about phishing in a previous post if you need a refresher; the tl;dr summary is that phishing is a very common attack method to gain access to a variety of sensitive systems and data by pretending to be an email from a trusted source (business or person). Phishing can be very costly on both a personal level (identify theft) and an organizational level (ransomware, data breach, etc.), so it’s no wonder that any digital security training spends a considerable amount of time on teaching others on how to spot a phishing email and what to do to prevent being phished.
It turns out that this type of training, for the amount of time spent in covering avoiding phishes, might not be as effective, and in some cases, can actively go against the goal of the training itself. A good portion of cybersecurity training comes in the way of lectures or an online web module, where users listen/read the information and are then tested to assess understanding. While that has been the main mode of training in the past, lecture/quiz style training, trainers realize that interactive training that goes beyond this model can be more effective in knowledge retention and understanding.
A growing number of organizations are using another type of security training – sending out phishing emails without warning to their employees. The phishing email, created by an external cybersecurity training company or by the local training team, would be sent out to spoof ether an organizational email or an email from a trusted source. This live test, theoretically, would more accurately assess employees’ knowledge and awareness of phishing methods and provide on-the-spot results, which could include corrections or remedial training. There are a variety of vendors offering both free and paid tools and services, such as KnowBe4 and PhishingBox.
Simulated phishing tests appear like a great addition to your organization’s training approach; however, these simulated tests can backfire. One way it can backfire is turning staff against the organization. One recent example of this comes from a simulated phishing email sent to Tribune Publishing staff, promising staff a chance of a company bonus if they clicked on the enclosed link. This email was sent out after staff went through furloughs and other drastic budget cuts, and the staff reaction to this email led to further erosion of trust between employees and administration. The debate extended to the security field, questioning the ethics of using content that otherwise is used in common phishing emails in an organization where employees went through considerable stress due to budget cuts.
Another way simulated phishing tests can backfire is when the tests focus on shaming or negative outcomes. Some phishing tests focus on those who do not spot the phish, providing on the spot corrective training or assigning the employee to a future training. However, research has shown that focusing on shaming to correct behavior doesn’t work in the long term and might lessen the chance of someone reporting a possible phishing email or other cybersecurity issues to the organization. Negative reinforcement serves to create a more insecure organization by creating an environment where staff either are not motivated to or fear reprimand if they report a cybersecurity issue.
The use of simulated phishing tests will be the topic of debate for some time, but this debate presents two takeaway points to consider for any type of cybersecurity training:
- Context and methods matter – simulated tests can be effective, but the test’s logistics – including timing and content – can work against the desired outcomes of the trainers. Trainers should also consider the current state of the organization, such as staff morale and major crises/events in the organization, in choosing and developing cybersecurity training for staff. Another thing to consider is the effectiveness of training methods, including how often training has to be repeated to keep staff current on cybersecurity threats and procedures.
- Positive reinforcement – positive reinforcement, such as awarding staff members who do not click on the test phish email, can help with creating a more security-conscious organization.
Next week we will dive into another type of cybersecurity training that is a simulation of another kind – stay tuned!