Security is more than User Education – it’s About Cultural Change

It is often said that users are the weakest link in the security chain. But every obstacle presents an opportunity and so does this one. If we can change user behaviour through a cultural shift, they can become an organisation’s first line of defence against cyber-attacks as opposed to the weak link in the chain.

Before we can discuss how to strengthen user behaviour against cyber-attacks, we must first discuss and understand how attackers exploit users to attack organisations.

Interestingly enough, there are two types of attacks that do not require a technical vulnerability to be exploited for an attack to be successful. These are DDoS and social engineering.

The latter is the focus of this paper. The simplest way to explain how attackers exploit users to gain unauthorised access to an organisation is simply to look at the kill chain and understand how an attacker gets a foothold into an organisation’s network for nefarious purposes.

As an example, ramsomware / malware attacks usually are deployed using methods that require a user to click on a link or similar that then downloads a malicious payload onto their network connected desktop machine. Once the malware is deployed, the attacker then uses the desktop that they now control to gain further access into the network. The ultimate goal is to gain administrator privileges at the network layer and then exfiltration of data that they want to steal.

Once this occurs, it’s a serious issue for the affected organisation. The most effective way to stop this occurring in the first place is to look at where the attack started in the chain of events and stop it there. Hence the concept of the kill chain.

Having discussed the way users are exploited by attackers, let’s now discuss the most effective ways to bring about the cultural change required to change user behaviour so that they are more security savvy. This can be achieved in a methodical way as described below:

  1. Executive Cybersecurity Awareness Training – Cultural change starts from the top. Executives needs to be cyber security aware so that they can encourage the broader user base to do the same and push the message and culture from top down. To achieve this, regular (at least six monthly) executive awareness sessions need to be run focusing on the following areas as a minimum with content updated before each training session:
    1. Managing online profiles
    2. Social media behaviour
    3. Avoiding blackmail risks
    4. “Whaling” attacks
    5. Travelling overseas
  2. General Cybersecurity Awareness Training – A 30-40min staff awareness training module (with exam) for all staff and all contractors. This course should be tailored for the organisation and cover general cybersecurity awareness and best practices with a focus on at least the following areas with content updates six monthly:
    1. Recognising phishing attacks
    2. Safely working remotely
    3. Creating strong passwords
    4. Social media best practice
    5. How to identify a potential cyber issue and how to respond
  3. Staff Induction Presentation – A 20min computer based training program (with exam) targeted at new starters outlining the organisation’s approach to cybersecurity and everyone’s responsibilities in this area. This training should briefly cover the items mentioned in the General Cybersecurity Awareness Training above
  4. Email Phishing Testing – phishing emails are a common method used by attackers to distribute malware into organisations. As such, this area requires special attention. A fake phishing email campaign should be run every three months to test users’ cyber awareness. Reports should be produced on who passed and failed the test, and those that fail to be directed to the Cybersecurity Awareness Training modules outlined above to be run as a refresher
  5. Cybersecurity Awareness Campaign – Two Cybersecurity campaigns per annum should be run that can be launched internally via email, the Intranet or digital signage to raise awareness of specific cyber security topics. These campaigns may include emerging threats, current risks or general reminders about the cyber security best practices. What is important here is that these are driven by executives and management to the user base so that users can see how critical these issues are and view them as a vital part of the overall organisational culture.

The executives should be charged with pushing the cyber security awareness message down into the user base on a regular basis post their training sessions at a minimum.

Fortunately there are tools now available in the market to deliver a lot of what I have discussed above in an easy and cost effective fashion.

As discussed above, exploiting users is a common way for intruders to get into organisations. Increasing user awareness of cyber security issues and ways of preventing them from occurring is an important initiative in any organisation to stop these attack vectors.

This requires more than just user awareness training and indeed needs a culturally shift driven from top down. Any organisation that can achieve this, will be driving a cyber security aware culture that represents an opportunity to reduce cyber security incidents at the start of the attack chain in a cost effective manner.

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