After the network perimeter is locked down, servers are patched, and password policies enforced, end-users themselves are the first line of defense in IT security. They are often the target for a variety of attack vectors making them the first step of triage when a security incident is suspected. Security awareness training, which should be a part of any serious IT security program, should be based in common sense, but what security professionals consider common sense isn’t necessarily common sense for the average end-user.


In order to solve this problem and get everyone on the same page, end-users need the awareness, knowledge, and tools to recognize and prevent security threats from turning into security breaches. To that end, a good security awareness program should be guided by these three basic principles:


First, security awareness is a matter of culture.


Security awareness training should seek to change or create a culture of awareness in an organization. This means different things to different security professionals, but the basic idea is that everyone in the organization should have a common notion of what good security looks like. This doesn’t mean that end-users know how to spot suspicious malformed packets coming into a firewall, but it does mean that it’s part of company culture to be suspicious of email messages from unknown sources or even from known sources but with unusual text.


The concerns of the organization’s security professionals need to become part of the organization's culture. This isn’t a technical endeavor but a desire to create a heightened awareness of security concerns among end-users. They don’t need to know about multi-tenant data segmentation or versions of PHP, but they should have an underlying concern for a secure environment. This is definitely somewhat ambiguous and subjective, but this is awareness.


Second, security awareness training should empower end-users with knowledge.


After a culture of security awareness has been established, end-users need to know what to actually look for. A solid security awareness program will train end-users on what current attacks look like and what to do when facing one. This may be done simply with weekly email newsletters or required quarterly training sessions.


End-users need to actually learn why it’s not good to plug a USB stick found in the parking lot into their computer, and users need to get a good feel for what phishing emails look like. They should know that they can hover over a suspicious link and sometimes see the actual hidden URL, and they should know that even that can be faked.


Ultimately, they need to know what threats look like. The culture of awareness makes them concerned, and knowledge gives them the ability to identify actual problems in the real world.


Third, security awareness training is concerned with changing behavior.


The whole point here is that end-users take action when there is suspicion of malicious activity. Security awareness training is useless if no one takes action and actually acts like the first line of defense they really are (or can be).


A good security awareness program starts with culture, empowers end-users with knowledge, and seeks to change behavior. This means making significant effort to provide end-users with clear directions for what to do when encountering a suspected security incident. Telling users to simply “create a ticket with the helpdesk” is just not enough. End-users need clear direction as to what they can actually do in the moment when they are dealing with an issue. This is where the whole “first line of defense” becomes a reality and not just a corporate platitude.


For example, what should end-users actually do (or not do) when they receive a suspected phishing email? The directions don’t need to be complicated, but they need to exist and be communicated clearly and regularly to the entire organization.


Security awareness training is the most cost-effective part of a security program in that it doesn’t require purchasing millions of dollars of appliances and software licenses. There is a significant time investment, but the return on investment is huge if done properly. A strong security awareness training program needs to be based in common sense, change culture, empower end-users with knowledge, and change behavior.