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Making Security Everyone’s Job, One Carrot At A Time

These five user education strategies will turn employee bad behavior into bulletproof policies that protect data and systems.

Most computer security folks have probably experienced the feeling that their primary jobs are finger-wagging and dispensing punishments. It can be disheartening to feel like you’re perceived as the wet blanket that’s slowing down the advance of innovation, and knowing people dread interacting with your department.

Are there ways to change the prevailing mindset so that security isn’t viewed as a stick to beat people into compliance, but rather as a carrot to entice people into habits of safer behavior? It’s often said that the best way to train desired behavior is to reward people for doing things they’re already inclined to do. With this in mind, you can use people’s existing behaviors to make your systems and data more secure.

Here are five ways to redirect user behavior toward the common security good:

Reward timely maintenance
In the days when users had to initiate regular AV scans on their own machines, one company I’d heard from used to pick a user’s machine each week on which to hide a test file. Any users who performed a scan and detected the test file by the end of the week would be entered into a drawing for a prize. While this specific scenario would be a bit outdated today, there are plenty of other opportunities to reward users for performing timely, routine security maintenance on their machines or accounts: This would include almost any action that would otherwise require nagging emails or locking people out of their accounts, or any security technology that is currently considered optional.

Drill for mastery
Many companies do a periodic security test, the most common of which is to send a fairly obvious phishing email to see how many users bite. In most companies, about a third of users fail the test, and a handful of that portion inevitably sends furious emails about how unprofessional and unfair these tests are. But these same people would never complain about a fire drill; this is because they fully understand that those drills are meant to protect their own safety as well as that of coworkers, and they know what skillful behavior entails.

In reality, fires and phishing are much more unpredictable and complicated than we can simulate. The idea is still the same: Give people regular exercises that allow them to perform a given set of steps even when a stressful event occurs, so that they won’t do something in an emergency that could cause more harm. It may feel like “teaching to the test,” but having ubiquitous posters and reminders about proper email hygiene may give users a sense of mastery over phishing drills, rather than feeling duped. You can also “gamify” these activities so that individuals or departments who perform well consistently get a small gift.

Enlist employees to help in intelligence gathering
Have you ever wondered what attack attempts made it past your technological defenses and into your employees' inboxes? One security practitioner I spoke with asked her users to submit any emails they received that they suspected were phishes, spam, scams or malware. This allowed her to see how attackers were probing their defenses, to improve education and to enhance network filters. This could also include incentives for users who are most prolific and accurate in their submissions.

Hunt for security fails
Even with the most thorough of searches, it can be exceptionally difficult to root out all the assets that need protecting, and discover how people use them. Most security groups don’t have the personnel power to sit with every single employee to see if the existing products and procedures are the best way to secure their workflow. But most employees are happy to identify ways in which security fails, if they’re not penalized for it. Indeed, if you reward that sort of behavior, you’ll have those corner cases and security end-runs identified in no time, so that you can work together to fix them.

It’s ok to break things
As anyone who’s done technical support can tell you, users are exceptionally skilled at breaking things in unexpected (and often perplexing) ways. While this could be considered problematic, it can also be a great way to root out software and system vulnerabilities. If you offer people incentives to report those vulnerabilities, you can then correct configuration errors and disclose product problems to the appropriate vendor.

While there is a time and a place for applying negative consequences for security lapses, there are plenty of ways to increase positivity, and to share a feeling of mutual assistance. If there is too much blame and shame associated with security, you may miss major areas of weakness that are common knowledge to your users.

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