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Hacking The User Security Awareness And Training Debate

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

First in an occasional series on user training in security

You know the adage: There's no patch for human stupidity. But as many organizations have witnessed their user security training programs falling flat, along with a constant wave of targeted and other types of attacks that invariably begin with a user falling for a phishing email, the debate over just how to get end users to practice secure habits in their organizations has intensified these days.

The old auditor-checkbox, automated training that is run once a year and augmented with a newsletter here and there just doesn't cut it, security experts say. Better methods of schooling users on security require creative and customized efforts that present security awareness to users in ways they can relate to -- and retain, they say.

The user education and training debate boiled over recently after renowned security and encryption expert Bruce Schneier wrote a provocative post late last month, which basically argued that the focus on training users merely glosses over the bigger problem of poor security design. Schneier said that training users in security "is generally a waste of time and that the money can be spent better elsewhere," namely in building more secure systems and software.

"We should be designing systems that won't let users choose lousy passwords and don't care what links a user clicks on," Schneier wrote. "And we should be spending money on security training for developers. These are people who can be taught expertise in a fast-changing environment, and this is a situation where raising the average behavior increases the security of the overall system. If we security engineers do our job right, then users will get their awareness training informally and organically from their colleagues and friends."

But Schneier's position spurred some spirited debate over his characterization and dismissal of user training's effectiveness. Security author Ira Winkler fired back at Schneier's post, arguing that it was based on a misconception of what security awareness really is. Security awareness and training are two different things, Winkler contended. "This misconception actually highlights why many security awareness programs suck," Winkler wrote. "Bruce uses the term 'security awareness training.' There is a very distinct difference between 'Security Awareness' and 'Security Training.'"

Winkler, along with other security experts who work on the user security awareness side, point out that security training is associated with those "checkbox" training videos tossed at users in order to appease auditors. They're on the same page with Schneier, agreeing that this approach has failed miserably. "Security training provides users with a finite set of knowledge and usually tests for short-term comprehension," Winkler wrote.

Security awareness, however, is focused on programs that foster a security culture within an organization and try to change poor security behaviors of users, they say. It's how Bob Rudis of Liberty Mutual employs voluntary but catchy Flash-based game apps for his employees that one-fourth of them have played on at least one occasion. Rudis also advocates personalizing and customizing some of the organization's computer-based training systems with funny photos of real people in the company -- for instance, an exhausted but victorious-looking help desk technician.

The key is getting security awareness integrated with culture and work within an organization; that way, end users can serve as another layer of defense in the organization, advocates of new-school security awareness programs say. Then they will create stronger passwords and think twice before clicking on email attachments, for example.

[Security blame game makes it easy to point the finger at 'dumb' users, but the delivery mechanisms of today's undetectable Web malware will get past even the savviest and most educated users. See Don't Make Users A Security Punching Bag.]

"Organizations are starting to realize that technology alone is not going to solve the problem. You also have to solve the human problem -- this is a new phase of awareness," says Lance Spitzner, training director of SANS's Securing The Human Program. "It's about changing human behavior, and there are programs that engage and continuously reach out and teach [and] engage people."

Spitzner says Schneier and other security training naysayers are basing their arguments on the old-school, first-generation training programs, not today's user awareness programs.

"The first step is engage [users] and to explain why [they] are a target," Spitzner says.

He says most organizations run security awareness programs today, but many are still compliance-driven, which means they are less effective. Others are using more innovative ways to educate users: BP, Lockheed Martin, and many large defense contractors have active phishing awareness programs, for instance, he says.

Phishing awareness programs have been effective for many organizations. One PhishMe customer, for example, had about 58 to 65 percent of its users fall for the phony phish the first go-round. "At the end of the year, after some effort, they were down to single digit" failure rates, says Aaron Higbee, co-founder and CTO of PhishMe.

Even though it takes only one user to fall for a phish to let an attacker gain a foothold in the organization, phishing awareness can help a user recognize that he or she made that mistake sooner, for example, he says.

"You'll never get to zero percent" failure rate, says Rohyt Belani, CEO and co-founder of PhishMe. "There's attrition in organizations and a constantly changing [threat] landscape." But you have a good chance of stopping most attacks by schooling users on what to look out for and how to handle these situations, he says.

MAD Security also conducts phishing awareness training. Mike Murray, managing partner with the firm, says the key is teaching users a little healthy skepticism about the context and content of emails: "Why is this person asking you for this information," for example, Murray says his firm says in its training.

"The key here is defense-in-depth. Especially with some of this really sophisticated phishing stuff, everyone is going to fall ... you have to realize that's going to happen," he says. "But [with awareness programs], when [a phishing attack] does happen, you will have a quick incident response to it ... The worst is a user falls for a phish and doesn't realize it and never reports it."

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Add Your Comment" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message.

Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Executive Editor of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio

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Drew Conry-Murray
Drew Conry-Murray,
User Rank: Ninja
4/4/2013 | 11:53:44 PM
re: Hacking The User Security Awareness And Training Debate
It's not surprising that companies selling user awareness products and services would say it's effective. What else would they say? But despite the conflict of interest, I also think user awareness training can be effective, particularly in regard to phishing attacks, given that it's done right and consistently. This kind of training can also be positioned as having benefits outside of work--home users are also susceptible to all kinds of social engineering.

Drew Conry-Murray
Editor, Network Computing
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