Employee training remains the best first line of defense against cybersecurity breaches

If there is one lesson to be learned from the recent mass spate of security breaches, particularly those involving ransomware, it is this: adequate training for personnel can dramatically decrease the likelihood of a successful attack on a business. 

Unfortunately, as borne out by the recent attacks, businesses are continuously failing to adequately train their personnel.  It is incomprehensible that businesses are overlooking this key component of their security programs.  Yet they continue to do so.

Effective security requires a unified approach.  Appropriate technology and well-written policies are critical.  But, they cannot provide the entire solution.  Recent studies have shown that it is the human element that is at the heart of most security incidents.  Just last year, Verizon reported that the human element continues to be the weakest link in information security.  They cite recent examples of breaches in the healthcare industry as highlighting the need for better training.  This should not come as news to anyone involved in the information security industry.  In my experience, it is the failure to provide employees with appropriate and ongoing training that creates conditions ripe for a security incident.

On the other hand, businesses willingly spend thousands of dollars purchasing and deploying sophisticated information security technology.  They spend similar amounts developing security policies, information-handling requirements and related documentation.  But, when it comes to personnel training, we see a minimal attempt to provide basic training at the time of hire and just a lunch-room poster or two aimed at “security awareness.”  Such an approach is grossly inadequate.  This is not to say some businesses aren’t on top of the training issue, but many clearly fall short.

Top cybersecurity training tips and best practices:

  • Inform personnel about exactly what your data is and where it is located. Train them on how to securely create, access and destroy data.
  • Regularly review abnormal technology behavior and encourage personnel to report concerns/ask questions.
  • Don’t allow personnel to download or install unauthorized/unapproved software or applications, including encryption software, remote-access, backup or other similar software.
  • Ensure personnel understand that no public email or messaging service is secure. For example, avoid sending sensitive information through unsecured email, texts, social media or other communications, and don’t allow them to forward internal email and documents to a personal email address or download to personal devices. Be cautious of emails and PDFs that appear suspicious.
  • Teach them the ways of the internet, such as ensuring a website’s address begins with “https” (not “http”) before submitting information through it, and reiterating that there is no “delete” on the internet – the internet is forever.
  • Tell personnel to beware of requests from smartphone applications to access personal data, which can be used for analyzation and sold to others. Ensure they are mindful of backup applications that consistently run on personal devices, which can make copies of sensitive information and store them online.
  • Never allow a third party to use a workstation or access your systems and data without supervision and appropriate contractual protections. For example, consider removing encrypted data on a personal device before allowing the third party to access it. Securely remove data from a device if you are selling or disposing of it.

Proper training of personnel has several advantages.  Foremost among them are the reduction of incidents and the ability of the company to demonstrate it has acted diligently to protect its information and, if applicable, the information of its customers.  This last point bears a further comment.

In the event of a compromise of security, one of the key questions courts and regulators, such as the Federal Trade Commission, will ask is, “Did the business do what is reasonable under the circumstances to secure its information?”  We all know it is generally impossible to secure information.  Breaches of even the most secure systems can occur.  Just ask the National Security Agency and the U.S. Department of Defense.

The question, however, is whether the business that has experienced a breach did everything that was reasonable under the circumstances to prevent the breach.  Obviously, what is “reasonable” will change over time.  But, the constants are (1) appropriate technology, (2) relevant policies and (3) proper education of personnel.  Businesses that address the first two constants but not the last are opening themselves up to potential claims they failed to act reasonably in protecting their information.

To many businesses, the idea of ongoing training about current and future security issues is just not on their radar screen.  This must change.  Money must be allocated to ensure this single greatest source of security compromises is addressed.  I have seen this work in businesses that have implemented more rigorous training for their personnel.  They have been able to achieve far greater security and have significantly fewer incidents.  Other businesses should follow suit.

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