What is security awareness training?
Security awareness training is a strategic approach IT and security professionals take to educate employees and stakeholders on the importance of cybersecurity and data privacy. The ultimate objective is to enhance security awareness among employees and reduce the risks associated with cyberthreats.
In crafting a good security awareness training program, companies should emphasize to employees the criticality of protecting the organization and provide an overview of the corresponding corporate policies and procedures that cover how to work securely and who to contact if they discover a potential threat.
The security awareness training should be customized to engage employees of all levels, regardless of how long they've been with the organization.
Why is security awareness training important?
Effective security awareness training lets employees practice proper cyber hygiene, recognize the security risks tied to their actions and identify potential cyber attacks that can be encountered through email and web platforms.
Common benefits of security awareness training include the following:
- Prevents financial loss. Cyber attacks can financially cripple businesses and harm their brand reputation. "Cost of a Data Breach Report 2023" from IBM Security and the Ponemon Institute put the average cost of a data breach among the 550 surveyed companies at $4.45 million per incident -- a 15% increase over the past three years. Security awareness training teaches employees how to protect their organization's assets, data and financial resources. By reducing the likelihood of security incidents and breaches, organizations can minimize their financial losses and maintain a more secure and resilient environment.
- Minimizes the risk of incidents. The volume of attacks against organizations is also growing. Verizon's "2023 Data Breach Investigations Report" scrutinized 16,312 security incidents spanning 20 industries around the globe. The report confirmed that 5,199 of these incidents were data breaches and that 74% of breaches -- including social engineering, misuse or errors -- involved humans and 83% of breaches involved external bad actors. The Federal Bureau of Investigation's "Internet Crime Report 2022" suggested that phishing attacks ranked number one with 300,497 complaints, followed by personal data breaches, resulting in a loss of $52 million. Proper security awareness training can prevent and minimize these types of incidents by empowering employees to be proactive in identifying and addressing potential threats.
- Reduces human error. Cybersecurity experts generally agree humans tend to be the root cause of most incidents. Security awareness training can equip employees with the knowledge, skills and mindset necessary to reduce human errors, making organizations more resilient against security threats.
- Cultivates a cybersecurity mindset. Despite the flurry of risks out there, organizations can help prevent incidents or lessen the effect of successful attacks by educating their employees on how to identify cybersecurity risks, avoid potential attacks and properly respond to a cyber event.
- Prevents data loss and damage. Efficient security awareness training enables employees to understand the significance of safeguarding sensitive data; preventing the leakage of personally identifiable information, intellectual property and financial resources; and upholding the company's brand reputation.
What is the difference between security awareness and security training?
The terms security awareness and security training are closely intertwined but have noticeable differences:
- Security awareness is the process of educating and directing an employee's attention to security-related issues inside an organization. Employees who are aware of security concerns are more inclined to feel accountable for maintaining security, understand its importance, and are aware of the consequences and disciplinary actions for noncompliance.
- Security training, on the other hand, focuses on imparting specialized knowledge and skills to staff members so they can improve their capacity to recognize and effectively address security issues. The main goal of security training is to provide useful advice on security best practices, including how to handle sensitive information appropriately, spot phishing emails and develop secure browsing habits.
In short, security awareness fosters a security culture and mindset within an organization, whereas security training imparts skills required to manage and mitigate security risks.
What should a strong security awareness training include?
An effective cybersecurity awareness training program should reach workers who have varying degrees of technical aptitude and cybersecurity knowledge, as well as different learning styles.
The training program should be multifaceted with a collection of lessons and learning opportunities so it engages everyone in the company. In addition, a comprehensive program includes role-based content, delivering instructional material tailored to the needs of an employee's role, as well as third-party stakeholders, such as business partners and contract workers, to ensure those individuals don't put the organization at risk.
Effective programs have the following key components:
- Educational content. This should range from written material to interactive online learning to gamification sessions so workers can access information in formats they learn best, whether it's audio, visual or other formats. Content should include lessons and modules with varying degrees of complexity so workers can access the most relevant information according to their roles.
- Follow-up and ongoing messaging. This reminds workers of the company's cybersecurity policies. It delivers short refreshers on how to identify and avoid security risks and violations, as well as how to handle possible security problems, and alerts them to any emerging threats.
- Simulated attack testing. Using phishing attempts, social engineering tactics, surveys, quizzes and other assessments helps evaluate how well the enterprise workforce adheres to the organization's cybersecurity policies and identifies any individuals who fall short in following cybersecurity best practices.
- Worker involvement reporting and measurement. This monitors the effectiveness of the organization's awareness training, helping to identify any weaknesses in the program and areas that require strengthening.
- Compliance-specific requirements. These ensure that employees are well informed about the specific compliance requirements and the significance of adhering to them. For instance, compliance standards, such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act and Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard, have particular elements that end users must be educated on during security awareness training.
A good training program typically has a mix of the following:
- Formal education, such as structured lessons and mandatory instruction.
- Informational learning opportunities, such as weekly emails containing tips, policy updates and cybersecurity news updates.
- Experiential sessions and even gamification, where workers are required to work through phishing simulations and scenarios to test their understanding and reinforce their training so they're better prepared to handle real-world cybersecurity challenges.
How to create and implement a successful security awareness training program
Organizations can enhance their security posture by creating a successful security awareness program. Important steps in creating this program include the following:
- The chief information security officer (CISO) and the organization's cybersecurity team should be leaders in crafting a cybersecurity awareness training program and should enlist other executives to gain support and to understand the most significant risks the proposed program should address. Those risks should align with the organization's overall cybersecurity strategy the CISO develops in conjunction with other C-suite colleagues.
- The CISO should work in conjunction with their human resources (HR) department, which typically leads workplace training and development, to ensure the organization has a well-formed and effective program.
- Workers charged with developing the program should incorporate the specific threats facing their industry and their organization when developing a training program since these can vary across verticals.
- The security awareness training program should be comprehensive, starting with rudimentary lessons and moving up to advanced materials. It should also include an assessment process to help organizations identify a worker's level of cybersecurity awareness and subsequently create a learning pathway for them.
- Organizational leaders need to consider that different roles within the organization face different risks and threats while developing the training program. For example, an entry-level employee with limited access to sensitive data and core IT systems likely encounters fewer risky scenarios than a high-level executive who works with the organization's proprietary information and financial systems or a senior IT employee who is authorized to work on the core technologies that enable the business.
- Larger organizations with significant HR departments might be able to develop and deliver their awareness training program or at least supplement it with outside resources. Many organizations choose to outsource most or all the training, however, considering this is the most effective and efficient way to implement necessary education for its employees. Either way, organizational leaders should have mechanisms to measure whether the training is effective at both the enterprise level and the individual employee level.
How to promote a work culture that prioritizes security awareness
According to Cybercrime Magazine forecasts, businesses will lose nearly $10.5 trillion annually by 2025, or $19,977,168 each minute, due to cybercrime. Therefore, a strong cybersecurity culture is vital for any organization to secure its information, assets and reputation.
The following can help businesses promote a security-centric work culture:
- Inclusiveness. Employers should ensure that everyone within the organization understands that security belongs to them. Security should be incorporated into the company's vision and mission to emphasize its importance at all levels, from executives to frontline employees.
- Training and education. Businesses should establish routine security awareness training initiatives to instruct employees on potential security threats and best practices. These programs can cover subjects such as identifying phishing attempts, maintaining secure passwords and safeguarding data.
- Regular communication and updates. Employers should routinely notify staff of security-related updates, incidents, news and reminders using a variety of media, including emails, newsletters, posters and intranet portals.
- Security development lifecycle (SDL). Organizations should establish an SDL to guide security practices in software and system development. An SDL is essential for creating a long-lasting security culture and involves security requirements, threat modeling and security testing.
- Security champions. Organizations can designate individuals who can educate their peers, push for greater security awareness and act as a point of contact for issues or queries relating to security.
- Incentives and recognition. By rewarding and recognizing individuals who excel in security awareness and practices, organizations can recognize success. Small incentives, such as cash rewards, can motivate and foster a positive security culture.
How often should security awareness training occur?
Experts agree that cybersecurity awareness training should be ongoing within the enterprise. Continuous training helps workers build a security mindset so they can stay diligent and gives organizations opportunities to educate workers on updated policies and procedures and alert them to the new and evolving threats and risks they could face.
To achieve ongoing and effective security training, the following points should be considered:
- According to a paper from the Advanced Computing Systems Association titled "An investigation of phishing awareness and education over time: When and how to best remind users," businesses should ideally perform cybersecurity awareness training every four to six months. Research showed that employees can still identify phishing emails effectively four months after initial training, but their retention of the knowledge begins to decline after six months.
- Organizations should establish a schedule to determine what training to deliver to which employees and how frequently training must occur. For example, security awareness training should ideally take place when a new employee joins the company as part of a mandatory onboarding process.
- Many experts also advocate for at least an annual certification process for employees with a combination of formal and informal lessons available throughout the year to keep security best practices fresh in mind for workers.
- When assessments, evaluations or testing indicate a lapse in best practices, organizations should consider mandatory training for the entire enterprise or individual employees.
- Organizations can opt to use a learning management system to make training content easily and readily available to employees.
Security awareness training costs and resources
The cost of enterprise security awareness training programs can vary from free to thousands of dollars annually. Small organizations might use low-cost or free external resources, in combination with their existing staff, to create a basic educational program.
Larger organizations with dedicated cybersecurity awareness trainers on staff often work with leading providers to deliver comprehensive, customized lessons continuously, coupled with security team testing and assessment programs. Some organizations use mock phishing and other attack simulations, often referred to as phishing campaigns, to assess and strengthen positive user behaviors.
Various vendors also offer cybersecurity awareness training resources and services. Government and nonprofit organizations also provide free and low-cost training information. Resources for conducting and learning more about security awareness training include the following:
- Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency offers assessment programs to government agencies.
- SANS Institute, a private for-profit organization, offers hands-on courses and certifications.
- ISACA, a professional association for IT governance offers cybersecurity courses.
- National Institute of Standards and Technology and National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education offer free and low-cost online cybersecurity content.
- Amazon's cybersecurity awareness training is a no-cost e-learning course that offers students a certificate of completion.
The lack of adequate cybersecurity education is a common problem in the ever-evolving threat landscape. Learn how to create an effective cybersecurity training program to instill security awareness in employees.