What is security awareness?

Security awareness is the process of providing formal cybersecurity training and education to your workforce so they understand the importance of security in their daily work routines. 

Training for security awareness includes examining a variety of information security threats and demonstrating your organization’s security policies and procedures for addressing them. 

The goal of security awareness training is to empower your employees with the knowledge they need to combat cybersecurity threats. That means your training should include insights into what practices or scenarios your organization considers risky or acceptable, what clues employees should look for, and how employees should respond to threats when they see them. 

Cybercriminals know employees are often an organization’s weakest link. They will target your employees and use whatever means possible to access information systems and sensitive data through them.  

Ultimately, security awareness helps everyone in an organization have a consistent, unified view about cybersecurity. It reduces risks and incidents related to security issues, and allows your workforce to protect the organization (and themselves) from real-life cyber threats

Effective security awareness programs should: 

  • Comply with laws and regulations
  • Be sponsored by senior management
  • Provide an effective message tailored to different types of learners
  • Provide for phishing and social engineering campaigns
  • Be engaging and entertaining
  • Diversify content and methods
  • Be reinforced
  • Be monitored

Security awareness training is most effective when approached as an ongoing practice within a larger security awareness program. It should provide concise, actionable, and memorable advice about how to reduce risks related to cybersecurity and information technology. 

The best security awareness training programs are tailored to individual organizations and cultures, covering the most pertinent risks. 

You can implement a security awareness training program in several ways,  including:

  • Online security awareness training
  • Emails, newsletters, or blogs
  • Print materials such as pictures or posters
  • Formal or informal briefings
  • New employee onboard packages
  • Intranet communication
  • Computer banners or screensavers

The benefits of a successful security awareness program include reduced chances of cyberattacks, an extra layer of defense, incident response experience, and increased likelihood that your employees become cyber aware. 

The first step in security awareness 

Measuring your baseline awareness of security is the first step your organization should take to create a security awareness program. By examining how good or bad your cybersecurity awareness is before you begin security awareness training, you can understand what the training program needs to include. 

You can assess your employees’ baseline awareness by performing simulated social engineering attacks on employees, soliciting employee feedback, and reviewing incident and event logs.  

More detailed results should include:

  • Results of simulated phishing assessments and social engineering assessments. 
  • Documented employee opinions and surveys covering what they think about existing security awareness programs and how engaged they feel with them. It is important to request this information from diverse departments and employees across the organization. 
  • The number and types of key security incidents over the past year, including phishing incidents, lost or stolen devices, malware incidents due to employee behavior, and all other incidents directly attributable to human error or oversight. 

Other steps to take for security awareness

Once you’ve established the baseline for your security awareness program, you can take other steps to instill security awareness within your organization’s departments and employees. 

Begin by focusing on your greatest risks, to determine what training should cover and on which subjects your employees need the most education. Perform a cybersecurity risk assessment identifying the greatest risks to your organization. 

Once you’ve identified your risks, break the learning objectives into smaller goals, rather than covering all the material at once. For example, if phishing attacks are your biggest risk, start with a short training focused on phishing that you give to all employees. Include a phishing simulation test to see who takes the bait, then distribute more detailed levels of phishing training based on test performances. 

To keep employees engaged with the material, it’s important that your security awareness training resonates with them. Training should be delivered to people based on their role, as well as the types of sensitive data and access they will be exposed to while performing their work. 

Organizations should also give employees the opportunity to test out of material they already understand. 

All organizations should consider several “leading issues” when conducting security awareness training:

  • Phishing
  • Social engineering
  • Safe internet habits
  • Safe use of social media
  • Mobile computing
  • Insider threats
  • Incident reporting
  • Laws and regulations governing your business
  • Data privacy practices

During security awareness training, it is important to monitor the results of your efforts, to see what works and what doesn’t. Whether you’re just beginning to establish security awareness in your organization, or interested in upgrading an existing program, setting measurable goals for improvement is crucial. 

How to measure the effectiveness of security awareness 

To continue to get funding for your security awareness training program, you’ll need to demonstrate a return on investment — to show the board or managers that it works. 

Review the frequency of reported incidents before training begins. If these reports increase as training progresses, it’s likely your employees have developed sharper eyes for suspicious activity. 

You can also address employee knowledge as a direct way to measure what they know about security and privacy best practices. For example, include quizzes or tests in your training materials, to see whether their knowledge increases over time.

Finally, if your organization has previously been harmed by a data breach, calculate the costs of remediating that incident. Record that number as a baseline before you begin your training program. If a repeat incident occurs, you’ll be better equipped to determine if training reduced your overall incident remediation costs. 

Security awareness and GRC

Several laws and regulations require that a formal information security awareness program be in place:

  • Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA)
  • Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)
  • Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (GLBA)
  • Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS)

Fortunately, several governance, risk, and compliance (GRC) tools can help your organization deploy a successful security awareness training program

ZenGRC from Reciprocity provides intuitive, easy-to-understand risk and workflow management software that lets you find areas of high risk before that risk has manifested as a real threat. Identifying risks to your organization will allow you to understand which areas in your security awareness program need the most attention. 

With a customizable dashboard and easy-to-understand reporting metrics and insights, you can communicate risks to stakeholders and management, emphasizing the importance and impact your security awareness program has on the overall security and compliance of your company. 

Sign up for a free demo today to see how ZenGRC can help your organization create a more comprehensive security awareness program.