The Human Firewall: Why Security Awareness Training Is an Effective Layer of Defense 

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Do security awareness programs lead to a quantifiable reduction in risk? Do they directly impact a company’s security culture? In short, are these programs effective? The answer to these questions is a resounding yes! With 74% of all data breaches involving the human element, the importance of educating people, and creating a human firewall, to help prevent a breach cannot be understated.  

However, for training to be effective, it needs to be frequent, ongoing and provided to everyone. Users should learn about: 

  • How to identify and protect themselves from evolving cyberthreats 
  • What best practices they can use to keep data safe 
  • Why following security policies is important 

In this blog post, we discuss the various ways that security awareness training can have a positive impact on your company. We also discuss how to make your program better and how to measure your success.  

Security awareness training effectiveness 

Let’s look at three ways that security awareness training can help you boost your defenses. 

1. Mitigate your risks  

By teaching your team how to spot and handle threats, you can cut down on data breaches and security incidents. Our study on the effects of using Proofpoint Security Awareness showed that many companies saw up to a 40% decrease in the number of harmful links clicked by users. 

Think about this: every click on a malicious link could lead to credential theft, a ransomware infection, or the exploitation of a zero-day vulnerability. So, an effective security awareness program essentially reduces security incidents by a similar amount. Want more evidence about how important it is? Just check out this study that shows security risks can be reduced by as much as 80%.  

Here is more food for thought. If a malicious link does not directly result in a breach, it must still be investigated. The average time to identify a breach is 204 days. So, if you can reduce the number of incidents you need to investigate, you can see real savings in time and resources. 

2. Comply with regulations  

Security awareness education helps your company comply with data regulations, which are always changing. This can help you avoid hefty fines and damage to your reputation. In many cases, having a security awareness program can keep you compliant with several regulations. This includes U.S. state privacy laws, the European Union’s GDPR and other industry regulations

3. Cultivate a strong security culture 

An effective security awareness program doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom. Done right, it can help you foster a positive security culture. More than half of users (56%) believe that being recognized or rewarded would make their company’s security awareness efforts more effective. But only 8% of users say that their company provides them with incentives to practice “good” cybersecurity behavior. 

When you make security fun through games, contests, and reward and recognition programs, you can keep your employees engaged. You can also motivate them to feel personally responsible for security. That, in turn, can inspire them to be proactive about keeping your critical assets safe. 

Finally, be sure to incorporate security principles into your company’s core values. For example, your business leaders should regularly discuss the importance of security. That will help users to understand that everyone plays a vital role in keeping the business safe.  

How to make your security awareness program effective 

The verdict is clear. Security awareness programs can tangibly reduce organizational risks. When asked about the connection between their security awareness efforts and their company’s cybersecurity resilience, a resounding 96% of security professionals say that there is more than just a strong link. They say that it’s either a direct result of security training or that training is a strong contributor.  

Let’s discuss how you can make your program more effective.  

Assess your security posture 

The first step toward effectiveness is to assess your company’s security posture. You want to understand what your users know (or don’t know) about your existing security policies or the current threats that your company faces.  

You also want to figure out how your users would react if they encountered a specific threat, like a targeted phishing attack. And you want to determine how they feel about their responsibility to help protect the company and its assets.  

You will also need to profile your current risk exposure as part of this process. For example: 

  • What regulatory requirements do you need to adhere to? 
  • Who are your most attacked users? 
  • What threats are having an impact on your business?  

It is critical to establish a baseline so you can understand who needs educational guidance, what type and how often.  

Provide tailored education and reinforce positive behavior 

To change user behavior, your program needs to have the right combination of: 

  • Information. When you have relevant content and instruction, you inspire users to change their habits. 
  • Opportunity. A good testing environment helps users to sharpen their skills. 
  • Motivation. Users will change their habits when they get regular incentives and behavioral reinforcement. 

There is no one-size-fits-all model. That’s because everyone is different. They have different roles and responsibilities, competencies, learning styles and motivations. They may speak different languages, too.  

So, it’s important to identify these various cohorts and create curriculums that are unique to each one. They should include industry-, department- or role-specific scenarios. Also, be sure to address the threats that are most often seen by your business. 

How you deliver training also makes a difference. Over half of security professionals (59%) say that more interactive programs would make their awareness program more effective. So, consider using interactive videos, games, phishing simulations and short quizzes to keep learners engaged. 

You may also want to offer shorter assignments, like microlearning or nano-learning training modules that are spaced out across multiple quarters. We know that 90% of people forget things that they learned after seven days. So, this approach can combat the forgetting curve.  

Security awareness training effectiveness includes conducting knowledge assessments, which help you to confirm user comprehension. Your users also need to practice their newfound knowledge by engaging in simulated phishing campaigns of varying sophistication. And they must be empowered to report suspicious activities through tools such as a user reporting button.  

Finally, make sure to reinforce positive behavior. Provide your users with immediate feedback. That could be a simple message or the award of a positive certification badge when they submit a valid malicious message. Gestures like these can encourage users to continue the intended actions. 

How to measure security awareness training effectiveness 

The final piece to building an impactful security awareness program is to evaluate its effectiveness. You need to measure change if you want to justify your program. This requires a multi-level approach, from your user’s behavior to your organizational goals, and up to benchmarking against your industry peers.  

When you have a clear view of your program, you can gain: 

  • A quick snapshot to help you showcase the impact of your program to your executive team 
  • Real-time benchmarking that allows you to make adjustments that advance your program 

Here are a few metrics you should track: 

  • User reporting rate. This metric tracks how effective your program is at encouraging your employees to report incidents. A high rate indicates a culture of vigilance and active engagement in your cybersecurity. It’s a good idea to track real versus simulated incidents separately. 
  • User reporting accuracy. While you want your user reporting rate to be high, you also want to ensure that your users are only reporting real threats. This metric tracks how effective your program is at ensuring that users report only malicious content. As they learn how to differentiate between good and bad content, the quality of your users’ email reporting will improve. A high user reporting accuracy rate indicates that employees are well-informed and can tell the difference between something that is a nuisance versus something that is malicious. 
  • User failure rate. This metric tracks how effective your program is at reducing user errors and improving overall security behavior. When you have a lower user failure rate, your employees are confident about making security decisions. They are less likely to take actions that could compromise your company’s cybersecurity. Here again, you should separate the tracking of real versus simulated incidents. 
  • User vulnerability. When your total number of vulnerable users is low, it means your people are less likely to pose a threat to your cybersecurity. This score is calculated based on various factors, including: 
    • The results of user knowledge assessments 
    • Training completion and participation rates 
    • How targeted the user is 
  • User sentiment. You can learn about how users feel with surveys, interviews and other methods. This can give you an understanding of their satisfaction with your program and overall engagement. It also helps you to assess the security culture of your company and whether your security awareness training program is building users’ belief that security is their responsibility. 

To learn more about how to measure the effectiveness of your program, check out our e-book: Measuring Security Awareness Impact for Long-Term Success

Enhance your cybersecurity posture in 2024—and beyond 

Security awareness training is a beacon in the complex and costly landscape of cybersecurity. It can help you bridge the knowledge gap that often exists between your cybersecurity experts and your other employees.  

The true strength of your company’s defenses often lies with your people. When you empower them with knowledge and teach them to be vigilant, you can see a big return without stretching your budget.  

Are you ready to enhance your cybersecurity posture in 2024 and beyond? Consider talking to experts who specialize in security awareness training, like Proofpoint. We offer a comprehensive solution tailored to meet the unique needs of your business. With our expertise, your employees will get the most effective and up-to-date training available.