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The Role of Employee Training in Cybersecurity Risk Management

This article first appeared on my LinkedIn Newsletter. Make sure you subscribe there for first-hand editions before they appear here.

As #cybersecurity threats continue to evolve, employee awareness and training have become critical components of any organization’s cybersecurity risk management strategy.

In most cases, employees are the weakest link in an organization’s cybersecurity defenses, often unwittingly exposing the organization to cyber threats through activities like clicking on phishing links, using weak passwords, or downloading malicious software. Investing in employee training and awareness lets organizations reduce the risk of cyber incidents and strengthen their overall cybersecurity posture.

Scenarios

To better understand the importance of employee training, let’s examine some common scenarios where this can be employed:

Phishing Emails: Phishing emails are a common form of social engineering attack that aim to trick individuals into revealing sensitive information, such as usernames, passwords, and financial data. Employees can be trained to:

  • Be wary of emails that ask for sensitive information or that contain suspicious links or attachments, and how to identify when a link is suspicious.
  • Verify the legitimacy of the sender and email address before responding or clicking on any links.
  • Report suspicious emails to the appropriate security personnel.
  • Use spam filters and email authentication tools to reduce the risk of phishing emails reaching employees’ inboxes.

Weak Passwords: Weak passwords are the most significant security risk that often leads to unauthorized access to systems and data. Employees need to be made aware of the importance of using strong, unique passwords and regularly updating them.

An image illustrating a weak versus a strong password
How strong is your password?

This includes measures like:

  • Creating passwords that are at least 12 characters long, contain a mix of uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols, and avoid using common phrases or easily guessable information (such as birth dates or pet names). See: Password Security
  • Use password managers to securely store and generate strong passwords.
  • Avoid using the same password for multiple accounts.
  • Implement multi-factor authentication to add an additional layer of security to login processes.

Mobile Devices: Mobile devices are increasingly used for both personal and work-related tasks, making them a significant security risk if not properly secured. Organizations will reduce the risk of mobile device-related security incidents when they train employees on how to secure their devices and the data they access. For example:

  • Use strong passcodes or biometric authentication to secure their devices.
  • Install security updates and patches promptly to address known vulnerabilities.
  • Avoid connecting to unsecured or public Wi-Fi networks.
  • Encrypt sensitive data stored on their mobile devices and use secure cloud storage services.

Social Engineering: Social engineering attacks often rely on exploiting human behavior and psychological manipulation to deceive people into disclosing sensitive information or granting unauthorized access to systems. Organizations can reduce the risk of social engineering attacks by training employees on how to recognize and respond to these tactics.

How social engineering works

Techniques on this include:

  • Be wary of unsolicited #emails or phone calls that request sensitive information or immediate action.
  • Verify the identity of the person requesting information or access before providing it.
  • Check the legitimacy of any links or attachments before clicking on them.
  • Report suspicious emails or phone calls to the appropriate security personnel.

Insider Threats: Insider threats are security risks that originate from within an organization, such as employees intentionally or unintentionally sharing sensitive information with unauthorized parties. Organizations can reduce the risk of insider threats by training employees on security policies, access control procedures, and the consequences of violating security protocols. For example, to:

  • Understand their role in protecting sensitive data and systems.
  • Recognize the warning signs of insider threats, such as changes in behavior or access patterns.
  • Report any suspicious activities or violations of security policies to the appropriate security personnel.
  • Implement strict access controls, such as role-based access and least privilege principles.

Cloud Security: Organizations are increasingly relying on cloud-based solutions to store and process data, it’s essential to train employees on the risks associated with cloud computing, such as data breaches, misconfigurations, and data loss. These best practices for cloud security, such as implementing multi-factor authentication and encrypting data, organizations can reduce the risk of cyber incidents. These include:

  • Understand the shared responsibility model for cloud security and their role in securing data and applications. (See: Shared Responsibility Model for Cloud)
  • Implement strong passwords and multi-factor authentication to protect cloud accounts.
  • Encrypt data in transit and at rest to protect against data breaches.
  • Implement access controls and monitor cloud activity for unusual behavior.

Physical Security: Physical security is another area where employee training can play a critical role in mitigating cybersecurity risks. By training employees on the importance of securing physical assets, such as laptops, mobile devices, and USB drives, organizations can reduce the risk of data theft, loss, or damage.

Physical security of areas containing data and systems is mandatory in this setup

Examples:

  • Secure their devices with strong passwords or biometric authentication.
  • Encrypt sensitive data stored on their devices.
  • Avoid leaving devices unattended in public places or unsecured areas.
  • Report any lost or stolen devices to the appropriate security personnel immediately.

Third-Party Security: Today, organizations are getting increasingly rely on third-party vendors and service providers to support their operations. This makes it essential to train employees on the risks associated with third-party security and how to mitigate them. For example, how to:

  • Understand the importance of third-party security and how it affects the organization’s overall security posture.
  • Evaluate the security practices of potential vendors and service providers before engaging with them.
  • Monitor the security practices of existing third-party vendors and service providers regularly.
  • Report any suspicious activities or breaches involving third-party vendors or service providers to the appropriate security personnel.

Problems and Solutions

Despite the benefits of employee training, there are some problems that organizations may encounter when implementing a cybersecurity awareness and training program. Let’s take a look at some of these problems and their solutions:

Limited Resources and Time – Many organizations, especially smaller ones, struggle to dedicate enough resources and time to adequately train all employees on cybersecurity best practices.

No alt text provided for this image
Time vs Budget

Solution: Prioritization and Targeted Training – They can prioritize training efforts by focusing on high-risk areas and targeted groups, such as IT and security personnel, employees with access to sensitive data, and new hires. Organizations can also consider providing ongoing training opportunities through online courses, workshops, and webinars.

Lack of Engagement – Employees may not see the value in #cybersecurity training or may feel disconnected from the organization’s overall security strategy.

Solution: Interactive and Engaging Training – Engagement and participation in cybersecurity training can be increased by making it interactive and relevant to employees’ job roles and daily tasks. For example, training sessions can include real-world examples and simulations of common security incidents, quizzes, and gamification elements.

Resistance to Change – Employees may be resistant to changing their behavior and adopting new security practices.

Solution: Management Support and Culture of Security – A culture of security needs to be built by having senior management lead by example and prioritizing cybersecurity throughout the organization. Management can also provide incentives for employees who follow security best practices and encourage an open-door policy for reporting security incidents or concerns.

Language and Accessibility – Organizations that may struggle to provide cybersecurity training to employees with limited language proficiency or accessibility needs need to note it since it can be missed by many managers. This problem is common in organizations that offer their services in more than three countries.

Solution: Multilingual and Accessible Training – Training materials should be provided in multiple languages and formats, such as audio, video, and text-to-speech. They can also provide training through accessible platforms and technologies, such as closed captioning and screen readers.

Lack of Follow-up and Reinforcement – Most organizations do a install-and-forget approach to cybersecurity. They usually do not follow up on training and fail to reinforce cybersecurity best practices.

Solution: Ongoing Reinforcement and Feedback – They need to reinforce training by regularly reminding employees of security best practices through posters, email reminders, and newsletters. They can also provide feedback and rewards for employees who demonstrate good security practices and use incidents as opportunities for learning and improvement.

Examples

Let’s look at some examples of how employee training has helped organizations strengthen their cybersecurity posture:

  1. The City of Asheville: The City of Asheville implemented an employee cybersecurity awareness program that included simulated phishing attacks, online training modules, and cybersecurity quizzes. As a result, the city’s employees became more aware of cybersecurity threats, and the number of successful phishing attacks decreased.
  2. The State of Colorado: The State of Colorado implemented a cybersecurity awareness and training program that included online training modules, interactive workshops, and a cybersecurity-themed escape room. As a result, employees became more aware of cybersecurity threats, and the state was better prepared to defend against cyber attacks.
  3. In 2018, Facebook launched a cybersecurity awareness campaign called “Hacktober,” aimed at educating its employees about online threats and how to avoid them. The campaign included interactive games, phishing simulations, and training on secure coding practices.
No alt text provided for this image
  1. Capital One, a financial services company, has implemented a robust cybersecurity awareness program that includes regular training for all employees and targeted training for specific roles and departments. The training covers topics such as phishing, social engineering, and secure coding practices.
  2. Microsoft has a comprehensive cybersecurity awareness program that includes training for all employees, as well as targeted training for specific roles and departments. The company uses a variety of methods to deliver training, including e-learning modules, simulations, and phishing tests. Additionally, Microsoft encourages employees to report potential security incidents and provides a secure channel for doing so. By increasing employee awareness and encouraging reporting, Microsoft has been able to improve its security posture and respond quickly to potential threats.

Implementing Effective Cybersecurity Training Programs

It’s not enough to simply invest in technology and hope for the best. Instead, organizations need to provide their employees with the knowledge and skills they need to recognize and mitigate cyber threats. Here a few ways I’ve identified that this can be effectively implemented in most organizations:

  1. Identify Training Goals: What are the specific skills and knowledge that your employees need to have to protect your organization? Some possible training goals might include recognizing phishing emails, creating strong passwords, and following secure data handling procedures as highlighted above.
No alt text provided for this image
What are your specific goals?
  1. Select Appropriate Training Methods: Once you’ve identified your training goals, the next step is to select appropriate training methods. There are a variety of training methods available, including classroom training, online courses, interactive simulations, and real-world scenarios. The best training method will depend on your organization’s unique needs and budget.
  2. Measure Training Effectiveness: This works to ensure that your training program is achieving your goals. This can be done through pre- and post-training assessments, surveys, and employee feedback. Measuring training effectiveness will allow you to identify areas for improvement and make necessary adjustments to your training program.
  3. Provide Ongoing Training and Engagement: Cybersecurity threats are constantly evolving, and it’s essential to provide ongoing/rolling training and engagement to keep employees up-to-date on the latest threats and best practices. This might include regular refreshers, gamification, or incentives for participation. By keeping employees engaged and informed, you can help create a culture of security (see below) within your organization.
  4. Ensure Leadership Buy-In: For a cybersecurity training program to be successful, it’s essential to have buy-in from leadership. This means not only providing financial support but also leading by example. If employees see that cybersecurity is a priority for leadership, they’re more likely to take it seriously as well.

Creating a Culture of Security

In order to protect an organization against cyber threats, employees need to be engaged in the security process and view it as an integral part of their daily work.

  1. Establish Security Policies: The first step in creating a culture of security is to establish clear and comprehensive security policies. This includes policies around data handling, password management, and acceptable use of technology. These policies should be regularly reviewed and updated to ensure they remain relevant and effective.
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  1. Communicate the Importance of Security: It’s important to communicate the importance of security to all employees, from leadership to front-line staff. This can be done through regular training sessions, company-wide emails, and signage in the workplace(awareness?). When employees understand why security is important and how it impacts the organization, they’re more likely to take it seriously.
  2. Empower Employees to Report Security Incidents: Employees need to feel empowered to report security incidents without fear of retribution. This is made possible by establishing clear reporting channels and ensuring that employees understand the process for reporting incidents. When employees feel that their concerns are being taken seriously, they’re more likely to report potential security threats.
  3. Lead by Example: This means following established security policies and procedures and emphasizing the importance of security in all communications. When employees see that leadership takes security seriously, they’re more likely to view it as an integral part of their own work.
  4. Recognize and Reward Secure Behavior: Finally, it’s important to recognize and reward employees who exhibit secure behavior. This might include recognizing employees who report security incidents, providing incentives for participation in security training programs, or even including security metrics in employee performance evaluations. When employees are recognized and rewarded for secure behavior, it reinforces the importance of security within the organization.

Future Trends in Cybersecurity Training

The cybersecurity threat landscape evolves in such a rapid pace, that training must adapt to stay effective.

  1. Personalized Training: One trend in cybersecurity training is the move towards personalized training. Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, training programs will be tailored to the individual needs of each employee. This might include assessments to identify areas where employees need more training, or customized modules that are specific to an employee’s job role.
  2. GamificationGamification is the use of game-like elements in training programs to increase engagement and motivation. In cybersecurity training, this might include interactive simulations or challenges that test employees’ knowledge of security best practices. Gamification can make training more fun and engaging, and can help to reinforce learning. Sometimes, a motivation is all that is needed.
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Usually, motivation goes a long way
  1. Virtual Reality: Another trend in cybersecurity training is the use of virtual reality (VR) technology. VR can provide a realistic and immersive training environment, allowing employees to practice responding to security incidents in a safe and controlled setting. VR can also be used to simulate social engineering attacks, such as phishing emails or phone scams, which can be difficult to replicate in a traditional training environment.
  2. Continuous Training: Cybersecurity training should be an ongoing process, not a one-time event. Continuous training involves providing regular updates and refreshers on security best practices, as well as staying up-to-date on the latest threats and trends. This are things like regular phishing simulations or security awareness campaigns.
  3. Soft Skills Training: Finally, soft skills training is becoming increasingly important in cybersecurity. This includes training in communication, critical thinking, and problem-solving, which are essential skills for responding to security incidents. Soft skills training can help employees to be more effective in their security roles and can improve the overall security posture of the organization.

Conclusion

When employees are provided with the knowledge and skills they need to identify and respond to cyber threats, organizations will definitely reduce the risk of a security incident and better protect their sensitive data and systems.

Implementing effective cybersecurity training programs requires a thoughtful approach that considers the unique needs of the organization and its employees and clients. This may involve creating a culture of security, incorporating future trends in training, and addressing common challenges such as phishing emails, weak passwords, and mobile devices.

While implementing a comprehensive cybersecurity training program may require time and resources, the benefits of doing so are clear. By investing in cybersecurity awareness training, organizations can better protect against cyber threats and ultimately safeguard their business operations, reputation, and bottom line.

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