What Is Security Awareness Training?
Security awareness training refers to how an organization helps employees, partners, and stakeholders improve security hygiene and prevent cyberattacks. Whereas traditional cybersecurity training focuses more on regulatory compliance and technical requirements, modern security awareness training is a cultural initiative that fosters cyber-resilient environments. Its core goals are to:
- Promote cybersecurity awareness
- Change attitudes
- Address behaviors that put organizations at risk of cyberattack
Importance of Security Awareness Training
Security awareness training aims to address and solve the persistent vulnerabilities that stem from human errors. With diminishing control over the tools and applications employees use, IT departments face increasing challenges, especially with the prevalence of remote work. Security teams can no longer protect an organization’s systems, data, and assets. Security awareness training becomes increasingly important as threat actors continue to exploit human errors to infiltrate networks.
Contractors, business partners, vendors, employees, and leadership must all work together, each acknowledging their role in the organization’s security posture. Security awareness training contextualizes cyber risks and threats for each stakeholder, teaching users to be more mindful about how they use technology and providing them with the knowledge and tools to do so. It also demonstrates why people should care about being mindful and educates users on common mistakes that enable cyberattacks, such as:
- Poor password hygiene
- Carelessness when downloading applications or opening email attachments
- Connecting to unsafe or unsecured wireless networks
- Using unauthorized or improperly hardened devices in the workplace
- Improper data storage
Elements of an Effective Security Awareness Training Program
In general, a security awareness training program should provide an overview of security tools and strategies and cover the following topics:
- Phishing and social engineering prevention, including common spear-phishing tactics
- Data privacy and data storage best practices
- Ransomware and malware awareness and education
- Physical security, including threat prevention and access control
- Best practices for working remotely
- Recognizing and reporting security incidents
- Relevant industry standards and regulatory requirements
- Password hygiene
- Recognizing and preventing insider threats
- Fraud prevention
Security awareness training should also be presented in a digestible manner and should possess the following characteristics:
- Comprehensible content
- Relevant and context-based information
- Full support and commitment from organizational leadership and executives
- A variety of presentation styles, including written, audio, and video materials
- Collaborative and hands-on learning sessions or simulated incidents
- Surveys and assessments
- Structured means of measuring and reporting participation and performance
- Opportunities for follow-ups and additional training
Security Awareness Training Best Practices
Flexible Training Approach: While some structured learning is acceptable and expected, confining entire programs to a classroom lecture should be avoided. Content presented in such a formalized manner is often challenging to digest.
Consistent and Effective Microlearning: Consistent and manageable delivery is an effective way to keep employees engaged. Providing employees with regular, shorter training sessions can be more efficient than presenting training materials in large chunks. In addition to being easier to digest, a lack of significant time gaps in training sessions can improve retention.
Continuous Optimization and Improvement: Just as cybersecurity is an ongoing process, so too is security awareness training. Training programs must be regularly reviewed, revisited, and revised to remain current and optimized.
Minimized Technological Focus: The technical aspects of cybersecurity are only sometimes relevant to all employees. Tailoring training programs to specific contexts enables people to understand how cybersecurity fits into their roles.
Support for Poor Performance: Employees should not be afraid to make mistakes—if they are, there’s a significantly increased chance that someone might refrain from reporting a security incident. Training should reflect this mindset, and employees who struggle should be provided additional guidance.
Tailored to Unique Security Posture: Details such as industry, location, organizational structure, organizational culture, and the demographics of the program’s participants should be considered when implementing a security awareness training program. Assessing unique environments through tools like the SANS security awareness maturity model can help guide organizations toward the specific strategies they might need.
Employing a Holistic Mindset: Security awareness training programs should not exist in a vacuum. Instead, they should be part of an organization’s overall approach to cybersecurity, integrating seamlessly with their security solutions, processes, and policies.
Setting Clear and Flexible Goals: An organization’s security awareness program's purpose and goals should be determined before implementation. These may evolve, and organizations should remain aligned with their primary objectives.