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7 Min Read

Securing Against Human Error Needs More Than User Education – it’s About Cultural Change

October 8, 2020 / Unisys Corporation

It’s widely agreed that users – people – are the weakest link in the security chain. But every obstacle presents an opportunity and so does this one. If we can change user behaviour through a cultural shift, people can become an organisation’s first line of defence against cyber-attacks, rather than the weak link in the chain.

Before we discuss how to strengthen user behaviour against cyber-attacks, let’s understand how attackers exploit users to attack organisations. There are two types of attacks that do not require a technical vulnerability to be exploited for an attack to be successful: Denial of Service attacks and social engineering. Social engineering is the art of exploiting human psychology, rather than technical hacking techniques, to gain access to buildings, systems or data – and it is the one we can prevent via cultural change.

For example, in our Cybersecurity Standoff study found that both CEOs and CISOs of Australian organisations that had experienced a data breach cite human error as the most likely cause.

The simplest way to explain how attackers exploit users to gain unauthorised access to an organisation is simply to look at the kill chain and understand how an attacker gets a foothold into an organisation’s network for nefarious purposes. For example, ramsomware / malware attacks are usually deployed using methods that require a user to click on a link or button that then downloads a malicious payload onto their network connected desktop machine. Once the malware is deployed, the attacker uses the desktop that they now control to gain further access into the network. The ultimate goal is to gain administrator privileges at the network layer and then exfiltration of data that they want to steal. Once this occurs, it’s a serious issue for the affected organisation. The most effective way to stop this occurring in the first place is to look at where the attack started in the chain of events and stop it there. Hence the concept of the kill chain.

So how do you bring about the cultural change required to change user behaviour so that they are more security savvy? Here is a five-step methodical approach:

  1. Executive Cybersecurity Awareness Training – Cultural change starts from the top. Executives need to be cybersecurity aware so that they can encourage the rest of their organisation to do the same and push the message and culture from top down. To achieve this, run regular (at least every six months) executive awareness sessions that cover at least the following areas with content updated before each training session:
    1. Managing online profiles
    2. Social media behaviour
    3. Avoiding blackmail risks
    4. “Whaling” attacks
    5. Travelling overseas

    Executives should be charged with pushing the cybersecurity awareness message down into the broader user base on a regular basis – at least after each training sessions (ie twice a year minimum).

  2. General Cybersecurity Awareness Training – Mandatory 30-40 min security awareness training modules (with exam) for all staff and all contractors. This course should be tailored for the organisation and cover general cybersecurity awareness and best practices. It should be updated and rerun every six months. In particular cover these areas:
    1. Recognising phishing attacks
    2. Safely working remotely
    3. Creating strong passwords
    4. Social media best practice
    5. How to identify a potential cyber issue and how to respond
  3. Staff Induction Presentation – A 20 min computer based training program (with exam) for new starters to outline the organisation’s approach to cybersecurity and everyone’s responsibilities in this area. This training should briefly cover the items mentioned in the General Cybersecurity Awareness Training above.
  4. Email Phishing Testing – phishing emails are a common method used by attackers to distribute malware into organisations. This area requires special attention because most people are overly confident that they would not fall for such trickery. The organisation should run a fake phishing email campaign every three months to test users’ cyber awareness. Use reports on who passed and failed the test, with those who fail directed to the Cybersecurity Awareness Training modules outlined above to be run as a refresher.
  5. Cybersecurity Awareness Campaign – Run two internal cybersecurity campaigns per year via email, the Intranet or digital signage to raise awareness of specific cybersecurity topics. These campaigns may include emerging threats, current risks or general reminders about the cyber security best practices. It is important that these are driven by executives and management to the user base so that users can see how critical these issues are and view them as a vital part of the overall organisational culture.

Fortunately there are tools available to deliver a lot of what I have discussed above in an easy and cost effective fashion.

Given exploiting users is a common way for intruders to get into organisations, increasing user awareness of cybersecurity issues and ways to prevent them is critical to every organisation. It takes more than awareness training, it needs a cultural shift driven from the top down. This will drive a cybersecurity aware culture that reduces cybersecurity incidents at the start of the attack chain in a cost effective manner.