Simulated phishing attacks are gradually becoming a more accepted method of schooling users on how to spot a phony email rigged with a malicious link or attachment, but staging fake phishing attacks can backfire if users are completely blindsided -- or become too comfortable with the controversial process.
"In the early days of simulated phishing, people were more cavalier when they deployed this," says Perry Carpenter, a former Gartner security awareness analyst who is now working as a security expert in the financial sector. "When you do this in a cavalier way without any forewarning and want to exact some kind of penalty [for users who fall for the attacks], then users just feel like you are out to get them. You don't want to be in that situation."
That doesn't mean taking the fire-drill approach and alerting users that a fake phishing attack is scheduled for Monday at 9 a.m. -- you need some element of surprise. The best strategy, according to experts and chief security officers' (CSOs), is to inform them of the simulated phishing training program you're launching or running, why you're doing it, and how it will make them and the company safer and more secure.
Many phishing simulations redirect users who fall for the attacks and click on a link or open an attachment to an online training session or game. "But if that's done wrong, it could make the [program] a detriment: You don't want to train them to click on a phishing link [just so they can go to a] game or training session. Then they might end up clicking on the real thing, which is the key thing you're trying to prevent," Carpenter says.
"You have to be very circumspect on how you do it," he adds. "This is not a behavior you're trying to encourage."
Spearphishing, or targeted phishing attacks aimed at certain organizations or individuals, are found in 91 percent of targeted attacks, according to Trend Micro's data. And these easy-to-craft techniques that typically easily fool users are becoming the weapon of choice for cyberespionage.
Meanwhile, user education and training in security has been a hotly debated topic. Renowned security and encryption expert Bruce Schneier recently argued that the focus on training users amounts to a distraction for the bigger problem of poor security design.
Even so, the somewhat controversial method of training users with simulated phishing attacks does help teach users not to click, experts say, reducing user susceptibility to phishing by 80 percent or more if run regularly and properly. Wombat competitor PhishMe, for instance, says one of its customers initially experienced a 58 to 65 percent failure rate in the first wave of "attacks," and by the end of that year got that rate down to single digits.
[Bruce Schneier says training end users on security is a waste of time. But security awareness experts argue there's a whole new generation and approach emerging that better schools users on security behaviors. See Hacking The User Security Awareness And Training Debate.]
A new report published by Wombat Security Technologies this week reveals what Fortune 500 CSOs from the financial, manufacturing, health, and entertainment industries have learned from their own experiences with simulated phishing attack training programs. One of the key elements for it to work is to make the program an ongoing process so users remain vigilant in their email traffic decisions, not just a one-off experiment, the CSOs recommend.
Other tips from CSOs with phishing simulation training experience:
• Get executives from all departments on board
• Determine the baseline of user awareness before launching any simulated phishing campaigns
• Gather metrics on the user reaction data to prioritize training
Overall, they say the programs help them better focus on the weakest link in their organizations -- users -- and to convert them into another layer of security: One CSO says it "shows employees that they are more vulnerable" than they think, and according to another, now "they do take it more seriously, and it makes them want to take more training."
It also opens users' eyes to security risks overall because it's so hands-on, the CSOs say. "Simulated attack training grabs the user's attention like no other form of training, but having grabbed that attention, the user becomes more amenable to all other forms of training," the report says.
New hires should be educated on the phishing program, the CSOs say, and that the purpose is to better secure the organization: "You need to set the right expectation that you are trying to help the company, not frame individuals. The smarter everyone is, the more secure the company will be," one CSO said.
End users want to be rewarded, not watched, notes Joe Ferrara, president and CEO of Wombat. So the key is to communicate to them what the program is all about so they don't feel like it's a Big Brother situation. "What we find is that if it's done well, people feel very positive about the way it's arming them with information to keep their own identities safe" as well, he says.
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