As many as 95 percent of breaches to companies’ data have a human element associated with them. It is no wonder, then, that security teams call people “the weakest link” in securing an organization and choose other investments for defense. Despite companies’ deep investments in security technology over the years, security breaches continue to increase in frequency and cost.
The conventional approach misses a significant opportunity to utilize people as a defense strategy against the ever-changing threat landscape. In fact, only 45 percent of respondents in the National Association of Corporate Director’s 2016-2017 Public Company Governance Survey reported that their boards assessed security risks associated with employee negligence or misconduct. Organizations that have fostered intentional security cultures from the boardroom to the server room have managed to transform employees into their strongest asset in defending against attacks, gaining advantages in both protecting against and detecting cyber threats.
What is security culture?
Culture-competent boards and management teams understand that culture is the set of behaviors that employees do without being told. In simpler terms, it’s “the way things are done around here.” There are many sub-cultures within an organization, and security culture is one that often looks quite different from the expectations set by policy. Security culture has the power to influence the outcome of everyday business decisions, leaving an employee to judge for themselves the importance of security in a decision. For instance, some frequent questions that employees might encounter include:
- Is it ok to release insecure code or should we test more, resulting in a delay?
- Do I feel safe to report that I may have incorrectly shared a critical password?
- Do I prioritize a secure vendor over a less expensive one?
Each of these decisions, when chosen without security in mind, add to the organization’s security debt. While likely that none of these decisions on their own will lead to the downfall of the organization, each risky action increases the probability of being targeted and successfully compromised by cyber-attackers. On the other hand, if the decisions to the questions presented above are chosen with a secure mindset, over time an organization can expect to see more secure code, better data handling processes, and an increased ability to detect cyberattacks, just to name a few examples. A positive, security-first culture makes it more difficult for an attacker to find and exploit vulnerabilities without detection, incentivizing a different choice in target. Directors at companies across industries should carefully evaluate whether management has established a security-first culture as part of their greater cyber-risk oversight strategy.
It is worth realizing that security-minded employees will not solve all security headaches. However, a company’s talent is an essential third leg of the business stool, partnered with technology and processes. An organization that does not invest in training and empowering its employees to prioritize security is only defending itself with two-thirds of the options available to it.
How do you practice it?
The first step boards and executives can take to shape security culture is to identify the most critical behaviors for your employees. Historically speaking, security culture programs used to be based on compliance and asked, “How many people completed a training?” or “How much time is an employee spending on education?” These are not the right questions. Instead, we should ask, “What will my people do differently after my program is in place?”
Prioritize behaviors by their impact on the security of your organization, customers, and data. Ideally this will distill down into two to three measurable actions that boards and executives can encourage employees to take in the short-term to be security minded. Most mature security culture programs have the following three capabilities to help develop these behaviors: measure, motivate, and educate.
1. Measure It is critical to have measures in place to show progress against culture change. When an organization can measure its key desired behaviors, it can start answering critical questions such as:
– Are my campaigns effective at changing this behavior?
– What groups are performing better? Why?
– Has the company already met its goals? Can I focus on the next behavior?
Measuring culture is notoriously tricky because of its qualitative nature, but it can be done using measures such as the number of malware infections, incident reports, or even surveys that test for the knowledge of, and adherence to, policy and process. Surveys should also test for employees’ perception of the burden of security practices, as well as a self-assessment of individual security behavior.
2. Motivate Effective behavior change requires motivation. Spending the time explaining the purpose behind each security measure goes a long way in getting employees on board. As an example, sharing case studies of successful attacks and lessons learned helps demonstrate to employees that the threat is real and applicable to their work. Some other great ways of providing motivation to follow through on security behaviors are public recognition of outstanding behavior, gamification, or rewards for success.
3. Educate Employees cannot act to change their behavior if they are not fully trained to do so. Ensure employees have the knowledge and tools to complete the security tasks. Ideally, the information presented should be tailored by role and ability level to make it as relevant and interesting to the employee as possible. One key focus should be on educating senior executives on the trade-offs between risk and growth in a company. Consider providing scenarios based on real cyber-attacks that explore the long-term impact of risky business decisions. Add these discussions opportunities into existing leadership courses to help model security-mindset as a valued leadership trait.
Senior level engagement
While the above is a framework that boards and executives can use to drive security behavior change from the bottom up, leadership has an important role in setting the security culture as well. Executives can publicly share the value of security as an employee themselves, which will reinforce the importance they see in proper security culture to the organization and to the customers they serve. Executives should hold their businesses accountable for executing on key security behaviors and publicly call out examples that have impacted the security of the organization, either positively or negatively. Finally, boards should press executives to ensure that the focus of their people-centric security program is on the highest area of risk, not just what is easy to measure.
Masha Sedova is the co-founder of Elevate Security, a company delivering interactive and adaptive security training based on behavioral science. Before Elevate, Masha was a security executive at Salesforce.com, where she built and led the security engagement team focused on improving the security mindset of employees, partners, and customers.