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Commentary

How to Gauge the Effectiveness of Security Awareness Programs

If you spend $10,000 on an awareness program and expect it to completely stop tens of millions of dollars in losses, you are a fool. If $10,000 prevents $100,000 in loss, that's a 10-fold ROI.

Back in 2013, I was perhaps one of the most visible defenders of awareness programs during a time period when many in the industry questioned the need for their presence as a security strategy at all. I still firmly defend awareness programs, and the arguments are still relevant.

To reiterate one of the stronger justifications: the measure of any countermeasure is if it provides a greater return on investment than what you are spending. If you spend $10,000 on an awareness program and expect it to completely stop tens of millions of dollars in losses, you are a fool. If that $10,000 prevents $100,000 in loss, it is a 10x return on investment.

On the other hand, most awareness programs are set up poorly. But just because a single firewall can be misconfigured and is, therefore, ineffective, it doesn't mean that all firewalls are ineffective. The reality is that few organizations know how to implement awareness programs effectively. Awareness is not about throwing phishing simulations at people until they recognize the simulations or forcing them to watch videos. That may be a piece of it, but awareness requires an ongoing program of reinforcing desired behaviors, well beyond phishing.

However, the underlying problem is not that awareness programs are poor but that users exhibit behaviors that are insecure. The point of my recent article was that the most effective security awareness effort occurs when security professionals examine business processes and attempt to proactively prevent or mitigate the problematic behaviors. The article offers two methods for that: specifically defining behaviors in governance to eliminate options, and the implementation of technologies to remove, prevent, or mitigate insecure behaviors.

You can never downplay the importance of governance, which is more than simply placing documents on the shelf. Good governance should define specific actions that are implemented throughout the organization. While individuals may not follow defined procedures to the letter, if you do not have such defined procedures, harmful actions on the part of users are again your fault.

Ideally, technology prevents users from making insecure decisions, such as creating bad passwords or perhaps removing the need for passwords at all. The implementation of technology should be determined in the context of an organization's business processes and the likelihood that the technologies will mitigate a user's failures to properly implement governance.

I will continue to argue that defining user actions within business processes is as important as an awareness program. That is true with any security countermeasure. An effective awareness program is still critical, however. The ultimate goal of awareness is to reduce the loss from areas where governance and technology eventually will fail.

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