5 tips for cybersecurity-training your employees

Government security managers recommend several techniques for evaluating the effectiveness of employee cybersecurity training and improving the odds that the lessons will sink in.

When Dennis Lauer joined the Millennium Challenge Corp. as chief information officer two years ago, the young federal program’s growing pains included a startling lack of security.

It was an almost free-for-all atmosphere, he recalled. Employees installed Apple iTunes on the agency’s network and regularly downloaded malware via pop-ups that harbored malicious code. “Almost every day we had [surreptitious] viruses, and people didn’t know not to click on" them, Lauer said.

The security situation began to change for the better when the office adopted new security policies and practices. Launched in 2004, MCC had adopted a few information technology shortcuts in the early years as the U.S. government corporation embarked on its mission of helping underdeveloped nations. When Lauer arrived at the agency, he had a list of more than 20 noncompliance items from Federal Information Security Management Act audits.

Now when users log on to the MCC network, they are greeted by a Tip of the Day awareness training application, which asks a question about IT security. The system then tracks the responses. Besides giving managers an easy way to assess the agency’s training program, the daily quizzes have also made employees more mindful of security.

“We’ve had a tremendous reduction in viruses,” Lauer said. “Instead of clicking on things, [users] call the help desk. They never used to do that before.”

But not every agency can report such success. Indeed, experts say the goals of user training efforts are still a long way from being realized. 

“There is a gap, and the gap is costly because it undermines all the technology being thrown at security problems,” said Keith Rhodes, senior vice president and chief technology officer at QinetiQ North America’s Mission Solutions Group.

As with any technology solution, the disconnect is often found on the user's side of the keyboard. "No approach to training is infallible because human beings are fallible, and of course, human fallibility is what training tries to counter,” Rhodes said.

A recent survey by CDW Government underscored the challenges of security training. Four out of five federal IT managers said they provide ongoing classes on security policies and procedures. But even then, almost half had seen employees post passwords in public places, violating one of the most fundamental security proscriptions.

The survey highlights one of the hardest tasks in IT security: changing user behavior. Firewalls, intrusion-prevention systems, antivirus software and other security technologies provide some defense against attacks. But they don’t fully address the human dimension. For instance, firewalls won’t prevent an employee from stowing passwords under a mouse pad or engaging in other careless practices.

Agencies hope training programs will keep employees on the straight-and-narrow security path. But how can you tell whether — and to what extent — the message is sticking?

Security managers and industry consultants say there are a few basic techniques for evaluating the effectiveness of IT security training and improving the odds that the lessons will sink in.

Tip no. 1: Make employee testing simple and routine

At MCC, new employees receive IT awareness training as part of their orientation, and the security tip of the day provides ongoing reinforcement.

The U.S. Agency for International Development created the quiz application, which is available through the Information System Security Line of Business program. MCC officials keep tabs on employees’ security awareness by tracking responses to those daily quizzes via a monthly performance report.

In recent months, more than half of MCC’s 400 users earned A's, but about two dozen got F's. The monthly reports flag users who chronically fail the quizzes so supervisors can follow up with remedial action.

The Tip of the Day system also helps coordinate the training of MCC employees who work abroad in 20 countries. The automated training delivery system is available via MCC’s network — a more cost-effective option than trying to get hundreds of far-flung employees to gather in the same room for training.

“Delivering training can often be pretty expensive in that environment,” Lauer said.

Organizations with multiple locations always face a tough challenge when it comes to developing and measuring the success of training programs. In Colorado, officials are addressing the issue by undertaking an IT consolidation effort. The state is 18 months into a four-year initiative that will meld the IT operations of 16 executive branch agencies under the statewide Office of IT.

“To get metrics to prove that end-user security is working, you’ve got to be in a consolidated environment,” said Seth Kulakow, Colorado’s chief information security officer.

Consolidation will provide the consistency required to gather the correct metrics, he added.

Tip no. 2: Check what they do, not just what they know

Vulnerability assessments can help determine whether employees are learning their security lessons and complying with policies.

For instance, a vulnerability assessment tiger team composed of internal IT employees or external experts can scrutinize an organization’s security policies and test systems and network security postures, said Aaron Barr, chief executive officer at HBGary Federal, which provides malware analysis and incident response products.

The team can look for sticky notes bearing passwords and other potential security lapses. It might also simulate phishing scams by using bogus yet seemingly legitimate e-mail messages or phone calls to extract passwords and other personal information from users. The goal is to see how many passwords team members are able to get and how they are able to get them. That insight can then be integrated into evaluations of agencies’ training programs.

Barr recommends that agencies use internal IT security employees to conduct quarterly vulnerability assessments and external experts for annual vulnerability assessments.

“Auditing and assessing and evaluating has to be a continuous process,” said Patricia Titus, chief information security officer at Unisys Federal Systems.

Security managers can also infer the effectiveness of training through anecdotal evidence of employee behavior. At the Interior Department, a recent inspector general report notes an increase in reported security incidents, which indicates heightened awareness among employees, said Andrew Jackson, the agency’s deputy assistant secretary for technology, information and business services.

Tip no. 3: Put security in personal terms

To help the security message sink in with employees, Colorado IT officials plan to educate employees about best practices in home computer security. The idea is that employees who learn to protect personal and financial information at home will bring those good habits back to the office.

When IT security “actually means something financial or personal to them, that tends to stick a little longer,” Kulakow said.

“We have found the best return is to relate training topics to people in their personal lives,” agreed Carolyn Schmidt, program manager for IT security awareness, training and education at the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s CIO office. “If they pay attention in their home life, that will naturally translate to work life."

Tip no. 4: Invoke consequences for misbehavior

At MCC, a new policy prescribes a series of escalating actions when a user fails the Tip of the Day tests. After a single failing month, the user is contacted about his or her performance. After two consecutive failing months, the user’s supervisor is alerted. If poor performance extends beyond that, the user’s network access is disabled until he or she completes remedial training.

Elsewhere, Colorado’s Kulakow has recommended making an employee’s adherence to security policy part of his or her performance evaluation.

At NIST, some organizations already include IT security performance criteria in employee evaluations, Schmidt said. But she added, “I think the best practice for accountability is to have support from senior management and a good working relationship between security operations and human resources.”

Tip no. 5: Always remember the limits of training

Security vendors say user training — no matter how well-done — can only accomplish so much. Users might fall for particularly clever phishing schemes, or they might flagrantly disregard security training and policy directives.

“There is only so much we can do to change the behavior of end-users,” said Eddie Schwartz, chief security officer at NetWitness, a security vendor.

He said organizations would be better off investing in tools that enable them to monitor users and detect security lapses rather than spending more money on preventive training.

Content filtering and data loss prevention are among the products agencies can use to counteract human nature, said Keshun Morgan, a networking and security specialist at CDW-G. Content filtering lets agencies block prohibited Web sites, while data loss prevention seeks to keep confidential data from leaving the network.

As many experts point out, there is no silver bullet when it comes to cybersecurity, so a layered approach works best — one that relies on training and automated security solutions.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.