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Train Employees in Cyberawareness

It’s time to rethink security awareness training.

Quick question: What do these three technology headlines have in common?

  • Global Survey: Malware Attacks Up Because of Social Media
  • 40% of Social Network Users Attacked by Malware
  • More Companies OK With Employees Using Facebook at Work
Having trouble connecting the dots? If you add to these the fact that numerous industry studies over the past decade have shown that user errors account for more than 50 percent of security incidents each year, the picture becomes a bit clearer.

Still struggling to see a connection? Top off this technology fact sheet with the recent explosion of mobile devices at home and work, and the common thread becomes even more obvious. End-user awareness training is more important than ever.

Nevertheless, it’s almost unanimous: Our awareness training has failed and is not effective. Yes, I’m talking about Michigan, but also local, state and federal governments, and even most of the private sector. (Did I miss anyone?)

Awareness Training Deficiencies

Here are some of the words and phrases I’ve heard recently that describe the vast majority of current cybertraining offered to end users: boring, long, death by PowerPoint, not relevant, not updated, a check-the-box activity, not my job, compliance based, a list of do’s and don’ts, a once-a-year mandate or simplistic. Perhaps the worst of all: “It’s a total waste of time.”   

Wow! How did we get into this mess? There are many reasons for our past failures, including a lack of budget and leadership, improper understanding of the problem, enormity of the cultural change effort, the fast-paced technology refresh or poor training offerings from industry.

Another problem is that security professionals (including me) prefer to focus on “sexier” things — like stealth threats, next-generation firewalls, hacker groups, advanced forensics training, intelligence reports, etc. We love funny cartoons that declare: “You can’t patch stupid.” Sorry colleagues, maybe the joke is on us.

Next-Generation Cyberawareness

Regardless of the explanation, one thing is now clear: The need for new, effective, enterprisewide security training is enormous. We need an urgent awareness wake-up call. What would next-generation training look like? It must be metrics-based and reduce enterprise risk over time. The training needs to be consistently updated and address outstanding audit findings. But lest we fall back into the same old traps again, let me be clear. Awareness training must be intriguing, interactive, short, monthly (or often), relevant (for both home and work PCs and mobile devices) and even fun.

No doubt, I have been told by naysayers that “cyberawareness training” and “fun” can’t be used in the same sentence. Are these concepts incompatible? I think we need to start over and learn from the new generation of educational game creators. We must break out of the old box placed around training and rethink our entire approach.

New Solutions

 At the beginning of this year, Michigan piloted some next-generation awareness training that received very positive feedback. While the cross-agency pilot group had less than 50 people and a special interest in this topic, the feedback was positive and encouraging. The need was recognized by all, and the consensus from leadership throughout government was that our current situation calls for a new carrot-and-stick approach. In practical terms, employees will be required to take awareness training, but it needs to be appealing and helpful. The testimonials after the pilot were mostly positive, with some staff saying, “It was great. This will help me at home with my kids as well.”   

As for next steps, we are issuing a request for quotes from the cybersecurity and training communities to provide us with Web-based awareness training as a service. We will be tracking metrics in a variety of technology policy areas to get key points across. Most of all, we want to change behaviors with interactive content that is memorable, relevant and fun to use.

 This new approach to awareness training won’t be easy to implement. Changing culture in a large enterprise never is. The finish line will continue to move, and we will certainly have setbacks. Nevertheless, we can’t go back to the old, failed awareness model. Employees are both our biggest asset and greatest vulnerability. We must help staff understand the positive and negative impacts of their online actions — one person at a time.

Miriam Jones is a former chief copy editor of Government Technology, Governing, Public CIO and Emergency Management magazines.