How Facebook’s Annual “Hacktober” Campaign Promotes Cybersecurity to Employees


While the word “cybersecurity” may evoke thoughts of highly sophisticated attacks that require fancy computing equipment and skilled hackers, the reality is that most attacks — especially in a corporate environment — involve simpler strategies that depend upon one thing: exploiting human behavior.

Most companies are hard at work building technology to better protect themselves and their users or customers. But technology can only get us so far. People are the most important factor in any company’s cybersecurity strategy, and investing in security engagement goes a long way in helping companies reduce the probability of a breach.

Facebook runs security engagement programs year-round, but the most important tool in our arsenal is Hacktober, an annual, monthlong tradition each October designed to build and maintain a security-conscious culture. It’s our version of National Cyber Security Awareness Month, a campaign to get people involved in cyber security and play their part in making the internet safer and more secure for everyone.

Hacktober has a number of different elements, from phishing tests and marketing campaigns to contests, workshops, and expert talks. Participation is not mandatory, but we find that about one-third of employees participate in at least one activity over the course of the month. Everything is designed to remind our employees how to protect themselves, our company, and the millions of people who use Facebook every day.

Security awareness can be engaging rather than scary — or worse, boring. If we create an interactive and fun environment around security, people will learn important security lessons and retain them throughout the year.

At Facebook, we take a “hacker” approach to security awareness because that ethos is a core part of our culture, which means it resonates with our employees. One of the best examples of this is our Capture the Flag (CTF) competitions.

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CTFs are computer-based competitions that allow people to practice securing machines and defending against mock cyber security attacks. We know many of our employees enjoy solving complex problems in a competitive environment, and CTFs give us a way to create that type of fun, competitive atmosphere around security education. This year we deployed two versions: a jeopardy-style CTF where challenges could be solved by doing research and an attack-defense CTF that relied on real-world attacks and exploits. The CTFs were hosted on our open-sourced platform, and the challenges were designed by a cross-functional team of security engineers each with a specialized skill set (mobile application security, Windows security, and so on) to ensure a well-rounded CTF experience.

In the spirit of keeping things fun and engaging, we also offered a series of lighter events that reflected our hacker culture, like hands-on lock picking classes. And to generate buzz around all of our activities and keep our employees engaged, we offered Hacktober-branded “swag” — T-shirts, hats, stickers, and magnets —designed in the “Hack-o-lantern” branding we’ve established over the last seven years.

All employees should feel comfortable talking about security. Everyone should be able to raise concerns without hesitation, even if their role in keeping our company safe may not be so obvious.

We believe all employees must participate in keeping Facebook a safe, secure place on internet. Over the course of Hacktober, we run a series of “hacks” such as phishing emails and rogue authentication pushes that help us assess the response of our employees to these simulated attacks. We also hold informal fireside chats with speakers like Condoleezza Rice, the former U.S. secretary of state and renowned expert on geopolitical risk. Her joint talk with Facebook CSO Alex Stamos gave people an opportunity to hear about the evolution of nation state–sponsored cyberattacks.

To mitigate the risk of human error, companies need to broaden their definition of security. Hacktober isn’t just about “cyber” security. It’s also about the physical security and safety of our employees. We partner with our physical security colleagues to provide training classes for employees, such as a travel safety course geared toward female employees, and use Facebook to share training videos on the threat of tailgating.

Employees should know the people who work on our security teams. And they should understand their role in protecting people on Facebook.

Facebook has grown over the years, which means the process of identifying and communicating with members of the security team can be challenging. We tried to simplify this by creating a security help form on our intranet as well as offering tours of our Global Security Operations Center. We also promote our security work through a massive marketing campaign: We built a dedicated microsite for people to visit and learn about different activities, and promoted it with Hacktober posters, resource cards, and coffee sleeves. We also created an internal Hacktober Facebook group where employees could post questions, provide feedback, collaborate on CTF challenges, or just post their thoughts on current security topics or concerns.

Hacktober is also a great learning opportunity for the security team. The microsite served as a data source for us to find out what people are most interested in, but we’re constantly tracking metrics that help us improve our programs — and we try to apply some of the lessons in real time. For example, we suspended this year’s phishing campaign in the middle of the month when our data showed a significant drop in people clicking on phishing links and an increase in the number of people reporting the phishing scams to the security team. In essence, we had achieved our goal of changing employee behavior and decided it would be better to allocate resources elsewhere.

Campaigns like Hacktober can be one of the most effective ways to assess social engineering risk and understand what types of human behavior your company or organization is most vulnerable to. Is it phishing? Weak passwords? Physical security? And what tools or tactics can your team deploy to address these threats?

We designed Hacktober to fit the culture and security needs of Facebook, but other companies can apply many of these principles as well. Just remember that any successful campaign must have support from senior leadership, align with the company culture, and take some of the fear out of the security conversation. Security education isn’t about shaming people for poor habits. It’s about rewarding positive behavior and fostering a security-conscious culture among your most critical resource: people.

Here’s how your company can create its own Hacktober:

  • Prioritize organization and branding. Facebook decorates its walls with posters with a distinctive “Hack-o-lantern” design and uses internal groups to share posts about Hacktober. Creating a unique identity for your awareness effort helps people identify it and find ways to get involved.
  • Partner with third-party organizations. The National Cyber Security Alliance is a great partner for security awareness work and offers ideas and content.
  • Recognize and reward engagement. Hacktober memorabilia like T-shirts and stickers are wildly popular at Facebook. Facebook employees who report suspicious activity or uncover one of our hacks are rewarded with one of these coveted prizes, which help drive awareness and incentivize others to get involved.
  • Run real-world security tests. Simple tests can go a long way toward reminding people to remain vigilant. We recommend things people would encounter in an average work day: sending spear-phishing emails (malicious emails that appear to come from a trusted source) or dropping USB drives around the office with fake malware, which teaches employees to think twice before plugging an unknown device into their computer.
  • Bring people together. Offer educational sessions with your security team, host interactive workshops, and run competitions and contests. You can even use the Facebook open-source CTF platform to run your own CTFs.
  • Keep it fun. Security doesn’t have to be scary. Facebook has invited families to its HQ for a safety-themed movie and pumpkin-carving night. These and other hands-on activities help educate people in a fun, casual environment.