I Think I Was Wrong About Security Awareness Training

Andy and I had a bit of a debate on the usefulness of security awareness training in episode 75 of our podcast. The discussion came up while covering a story about ransom campaigns and how the author recommends amping up awareness training to avoid malware and spear phishing, the two main avenues of attack for these attackers.

I was on the side of there being some benefit and Andy on the side of it not being worthwhile.

The logic goes like this: attackers are becoming so sophisticated, that it isn’t practical to expect a lay person to be able to identify these attacks – technical controls are really the only thing that is going to be effective.

My thinking, at the time, was that awareness training is like anti-virus: you should have it in place to defend against those things that it can, but we all know there are plenty of attacks it won’t stop. I think that is still a reasonable assumption.

However, I’ve since thought about it some, and in think Andy is probably right…

Awareness training is about trying to establish some firewall rules in minds of people in an organization. There’s an implicit hope that the training will avoid *some* number attacks and an understanding that it won’t catch all of them.

However, people aren’t wired to be a control point. There is a lot of research that demonstrates this point, notably in Dan Ariely’s “Predictably Irrational” books. Focus, attention, diligence and even ethics are influenced by many factors, and awareness training would need to compete against fundamental nature of people.

But it’s worse than just not effective, and that is why I think I’m wrong here. Awareness training *is* believed to be a security control by many. Awareness training is mandated by every security standard or framework I can think of, alongside antivirus, firewalls and the like. And because it is viewed as a control, we count on its effectiveness as part of our security program.

At least that is my intuition. I don’t have hard data to back it up, but that would be pretty enlightening experiment – if it were done correctly, meaning not through an opinion survey.

Educating employees on company policies is clearly necessary. However, it seems that focusing on hard controls rather than awareness education would be a better investment. Those are things like:

  • Two factor authentication or password managers and crazy password complexity requirements instead of trying teach what a strong password is
  • Controls to prevent the execution of malware delivered through email instead of how to recognize malicious files
  • Controls to prevent browsing to phishing sites or exploit kits instead of how to
  • And so on.

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