Whenever a new dangerous strain of malware is detected in the wild for the first time, alarming headlines follow. These headlines create the impression that malware alone is responsible for most cybersecurity incidents.
In reality, malware is often invited into a network by users themselves. The same users typically don’t even realize that their actions act as invitations because they lack basic cybersecurity awareness training.
Why Is Cybersecurity Awareness Training Important?
This year, the second edition of the Psychology of Human report revealed that 85 percent of all data breaches are caused by human error, confirming what many cybersecurity professionals have known from experience for a very long time: people are the weakest link in cybersecurity. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the cost associated with lackluster cybersecurity awareness training is growing. In fact, the year 2021 had the highest average total data breach cost in the 17-year history of IBM’s Cost of a Data Breach Report.
Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, many organizations have transitioned to the hybrid work model, allowing employees to work from remote locations, often using both work-issued and personal devices.
To support them, organizations have implemented various cloud-based tools or switched to the cloud entirely by moving their data and applications to servers managed by a cloud provider like Microsoft, Amazon, or Google. One of the consequences of this transition is the blurring of the network perimeter. Now that employees don’t always access the resources they need to do their work from a single location, protected by a firewall, they’re much more exposed to cyber threats such as malware, phishing, and data eavesdropping.
All it takes for a regular workday to turn into a disaster is one employee connecting their laptop to a malicious Wi-Fi network created by an attacker at an airport or some other public place. A cybersecurity-aware employee would know that attackers often create fake Wi-Fi networks in public places to lure in unsuspecting victims and steal their private information, including usernames and passwords. Instead of connecting to a potentially malicious network, they would set up a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot and use a VPN for extra security.
These simple steps could be the difference between a task successfully completed and an expensive data breach.
6 Critical Cybersecurity Policies Every Organization Must Have
How Do I Implement Cybersecurity Awareness Training?
Cybersecurity awareness training isn’t a one-and-done deal, even though that’s exactly how it’s sometimes approached. The threats organizations face evolve rapidly, and all cybersecurity awareness training initiatives should reflect this. Organizations should strive to implement a comprehensive cybersecurity awareness training program that informs employees of cybersecurity risks, educates them about specific cybersecurity policies and procedures, and explains to them their role in the cybersecurity chain.
Step 1: Obtain Buy-In from Leadership
To implement a cybersecurity awareness training program, it’s necessary to first obtain buy-in from leadership. Despite everything that has been said and written about cybersecurity threats, it’s still too easy to find leaders who don’t understand that any organization that’s not focusing on cybersecurity is playing with fire and risks getting badly burned.
Leaders sometimes don’t want to spend money on cybersecurity because they’re not convinced that it will bring the desired results. That’s why it helps to explain that the success of a cybersecurity training program can be objectively measured using metrics such as the number of opened phishing emails. Likewise, it’s a good idea to show how the program aligns with industry regulations and frameworks like NIST. Compliance protects organizations from fines and lawsuits, and it makes them more trustworthy as business partners.
Step 2: Perform a Cybersecurity Risk Assessment
All organizations are different, and so are the cybersecurity risks they face. To properly understand them, it’s necessary to perform a cybersecurity risk assessment. According to NIST, a risk assessment is “the process of identifying risks to organizational operations (including mission, functions, image, reputation), organizational assets, individuals, other organizations, and the Nation, resulting from the operation of an information system.”
A cybersecurity risk assessment identifies cybersecurity risks by creating an inventory of IT assets, mapping where data is stored and how it’s accessed, listing and prioritizing threats with the biggest potential impact, and more. Once completed, it can serve as a map for organizations to follow when evaluating different training options and deciding on the content of individual training sessions.
Step 3: Evaluate Available Training Options
Creating a cybersecurity awareness training program is kind of like cooking a meal because it must not only be done well but also match the taste of those who it’s intended for. To start with, cybersecurity awareness training sessions can take place in the conference room or online. Of course, it’s also possible to combine offline and online training sessions together and let each employee choose their preferred format. When it comes to their actual content, there’s rarely any need to reinvent the wheel. Established platforms and training providers already have large libraries of training content that can be customized to meet the needs of each organization.
Step 4: Launch the Cybersecurity Awareness Training Program
At this point, it should be established who needs what kind of training and how frequently they need it. For the cybersecurity awareness training program to be as effective as possible, training activities should be varied and include everything from online courses to presentations to phishing simulations.
It’s important to take the time to explain to employees why cybersecurity awareness training is necessary in the first place and how the entire organization can benefit from it. The launch of the program is a good time to conduct an initial cybersecurity awareness survey. The results of this survey can then be compared with the results of future surveys to determine if the program is yielding the desired results.
Step 5: Analyze Results and Make Improvements
As we’ve already established, cybersecurity awareness training isn’t a one-and-done activity—or at least it shouldn’t be for it to be effective. However, repeating the same training sessions over and over again regardless of how much they help or don’t help employees recognize and avoid cybersecurity threats isn’t ideal either. The best approach is to regularly compile test results and make improvements to the training program based on them. Are employees still clicking on phishing emails? Then it’s time to include more phishing-specific training sessions. Are they reusing the same passwords? Then it’s time to go over password best practices again.
What are Cybersecurity Awareness Training Best Practices?
When implementing a cybersecurity awareness training program, it’s important to keep in mind the following best practices to ensure its maximum effectivness.
Nobody Should Be Excluded
Cybersecurity awareness training is for everybody—even the most senior employees. Such employees are high-value targets, and cybercriminals know it. Some of the most damaging security incidents happen when attackers obtain access to an inbox belonging to a CEO or other company executive and use it to fool the accounting department into executing unauthorized wire transfers.
Mistakes Shouldn’t Be Punished
For most employees, cybersecurity is an intimidating topic, and the goal of cybersecurity awareness training is to make it less so. Employees who are not familiar with the current cybersecurity landscape are guaranteed to occasionally take the wrong turn when attempting to navigate it. Instead of receiving a punishment for every mistake, employees should receive a constructive warning that can help them better defend themselves.
Training Sessions Should Be Relevant
Even the most comprehensive cybersecurity training program can’t possibly address all threats employees may possibly encounter in the wild. What any training program can do, however, is address the threats employees are most likely to face when performing day-to-day activities, so training sessions should always be as relevant as possible.
Cybersecurity Culture Should Be the End Goal
The term cybersecurity culture is used to describe the attitudes and values of an organization’s workforce with respect to cybersecurity. A healthy cybersecurity culture has several characteristics, including: all employees understand the importance of cybersecurity; employees adhere to written and unwritten rules of conduct; cybersecurity-related metrics are carefully monitored and reflected upon. A cybersecurity culture comes to life when cybersecurity awareness becomes an integral part of an organization’s identity.
You Shouldn’t Deploy Your Program in Haste
There are situations when cybersecurity awareness training suddenly becomes very important, such as when moving to a hybrid work model. Still, the training shouldn’t be deployed in haste, without proper planning. Employees are not machines, and they can retain only so much information in one sitting. They also have existing obligations that demand their attention and mental stamina. Proper planning and the right timing can make training sessions far more effective than they would be otherwise.
Summary on Cybersecurity Awareness
As we move into a post-pandemic world, cybersecurity awareness training will be one of the key factors separating resilient organizations from those whose cyber defenses depend solely on luck.
The importance of cybersecurity awareness training stems from the role employees play in data breaches, which has earned them the title of the weakest link in the cybersecurity chain. An effective cybersecurity awareness training program can go a long way in helping employees recognize and defend themselves against the threats they face when working from the office and remote locations alike.