Phishing exercises have become a staple, but it helps to be as clear as possible on exactly why you’re doing them.
In science and engineering, root cause analysis is a method used to identify the main source of a problem. Without assigning blame, engineers ask questions to understand why an issue occurred. What happened? What went well? What did not go so well? Where did we get lucky? What can we do to improve? In doing so, the engineers collaborate on incremental tweaks to tools and processes. The key: being intentional about learning something from the experience.
Phishing exercises are a staple in most security awareness programs, though they usually lack intention and their usefulness is often debated. Security teams send emails and check who opens them, clicks links, shares passwords. For what purpose? Some argue it’s for compliance or to educate staff. Some say it’s to shame those who take the bait. I’m all for phishing exercises — as long as we’re clear about why we’re doing them. But what if we were as intentional about phishing as engineers are about root cause analysis?
Being intentional about a phishing exercise means deciding what we want to achieve. It means we create the exercise with a specific purpose in mind, not to check a box. If we’re not sure what our goals are, we should put some thought into why we’re doing the exercise in the first place. Did the boss ask us to? Do we always do it once a quarter? Are we required to do so? Do we want to see if Alice is a robot, if Bob is paying attention, or teach the finance department a lesson? We can create a more-useful exercise if we’re clear about our goals for doing so.
We often talk about a phishing exercise as something we’re doing for our staff: to educate them on what phishing looks like, and to teach them what to do if they receive a suspicious email. To remind them to stay vigilant and be careful when opening emails from strangers. To measure something, anything. But with some advance planning and a clear intention, we can use such an exercise to our benefit: We can learn more about the people we support, how they work, what they need more of from us. We can’t empower people to work in a secure manner if we don’t know how to best support them.
When I worked for The New York Times, I used phishing exercises to introduce security to the newsroom. I’d send out emails, check the responses, and post an internal summary a week later. The purpose was not to check a box, scare the journalists, or rank different departments. The purpose was to get people to talk about security. To ask questions — of us and of their colleagues. To start a conversation and get ourselves invited to weekly meetings. I’ll admit that bypassing the corporate communications department was an added bonus.
We can leverage phishing exercises to learn about the needs of our staff and educate them on best practices in a way that makes sense to them rather than us. But how? You won’t find the answers in the number of opens, clicks, or submits. Pay attention to the questions people ask in the weeks after an exercise — the questions people ask in the hallway, in the elevator, while you’re waiting for your coffee. Listen to the concerns they share, no matter how silly or paranoid they think they sound. Then, and only then, will you know what they’re looking for and how you can best support them.
Phishing exercises help us identify security champions among our staff. The ones who report every exercise. The ones who ask questions, always eager to learn more. The ones who ask if they can write next month’s phishing email. The ones who make an effort to share their knowledge and support their colleagues. The ones who recognize that security is important for their work. Who believe that everybody deserves good security and who see security as a social responsibility, not something your team does alone. You need to support them, encourage them, empower them. Start a club and bring snacks.
Ever wondered how well your awareness training is going? You’ll find that clear goals and intentions lead to the creation of better metrics. You’ll know what to measure once you’re clear on what you’re trying to achieve. Want to make people aware of your team’s existence? Want your team to be more visible? Increase the number of support requests your team gets? Get input on priorities for the next quarter? Phishing exercises can help you achieve all these things.
Next time you create a phishing exercise, ask yourself why.
Runa Sandvik works on digital security for journalists. Her work builds upon experience from her time at The New York Times, Freedom of the Press Foundation, and The Tor Project. She is a board member of the Norwegian Online News Association, and tweets as @runasand. View Full Bio
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