CSO50 2015: Creating a Human Firewall

Human nature dictates that you can never expect 100% of the people to follow instructions 100% of the time. The same holds true when it comes to protecting information security. At safety science company UL LLC in Northbrook, Ill., Steve Wenc, senior vice president and chief risk officer, and Robert Jamieson, IT security officer, realized early on in their security education efforts that reducing risk would require more than just lectures and written instructions.

"As we were looking at the potential threats that we face, it's probably no surprise that phishing attacks hit the top of our list," Wenc explains. "Surveys showed that phishing was one thing we really couldn't fight with technology tools -- the core element is human. So we threw out the general awareness program and decided to attack it from a behavioral perspective."

[ When Windows XP ends - but life must go on for research systemsCSO50 winners ]

UL developed a behavior-focused security education program (with no budget) designed to help UL's nearly 11,000 employees recognize phishing messages and quickly report them to UL's security team. The program has created a crowd-sourced "human firewall." On a daily basis, UL employees are spotting new attacks, reporting them -- often within minutes -- and enabling UL's security team to quickly take steps to block the attacks, alert other users and remediate infections.

The first step was to educate employees on what a phishing attack looked like. Every quarter, every employee at UL from the CEO on down gets at least one "planted" phishing message (based on real attacks the company has received) that they are challenged to detect. This is not a "gotcha" moment -- employees are notified that there will be a test. If the employee falls for the scam -- they are routed to a one-page lessons-learned that offers two or three pointers on what they should look for the next time.

The second step was getting employees to report emails that they suspect are phishing scams. The practice caught on quickly as the security team began personally responding to each and every employee who reported an incident. Jamieson believes this is a big reason why employees stay engaged today.

Through employees' reports, "we saw an attack that we responded to within 24 hours," Jamieson says. "In the past it took days or weeks. Some of them might be months -- or never -- because there was no process or reason for people to think to report them to us."

Since the project's inception, incident reports have increased from 10 a month to over 1,000, and UL reports a 19% decrease in virus-related incidents. Instead of looking at the flood of leads as a downside, Wenc and Jamieson saw it as an opportunity to create personal relationships with the people at UL.

"We appreciate what they're doing," Wenc says. "When they spot [a scam] that has impact on the company, we tell them, 'You saved your colleagues and our customers from an attack.'"

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