What Is Security Awareness Training and Why Is It Needed?

security awareness training
Click here to read a summary of this article!
What Is Security Awareness Training and Why Is It Needed?

Investing in cyber security awareness training for employees is a must for any business. No matter how strong your cybersecurity software is, you’ve still got a glaring weak point in your defenses if your workers don’t understand what a security threat is. Security awareness training programs will upskill your workforce in areas such as:

  • Identifying phishing attacks
  • Spotting malware
  • Understanding social media risks
  • Practicing good password safety
  • Following cyber hygiene habits

For more information on the risks posed by an unaware workforce, and the benefits of security awareness training, check out the full article below.

Security awareness training should be at the forefront of your mind as a business owner or senior executive who’s responsible for business continuity and security. There are now more security threats than ever, and individuals and businesses of all sizes are at risk of financial loss, or damage to IP (intellectual property) or brand reputation.

So, you need to be able to rely on your workforce’s ability to spot a cybersecurity threat and respond appropriately. Unfortunately, you can’t stand over your employees’ shoulders, watching everything that they do. This is why security awareness training exists.

By putting your employees through comprehensive security awareness training, you can rest assured that they’re up to speed on the latest and most dangerous security threats to your business.

What Is Security Awareness Training?

What is Security Awwareness Training iconSecurity awareness training is designed to inform your cybersecurity and IT professionals about matters relating to information security. Specifically, this kind of training seeks to raise awareness of the various internal and external security risks to your organization, including email scams, malware, weak passwords, and insider threats.

With proper security awareness training, you ensure that your employees have a good understanding of security risks. More importantly, you teach them about the importance of good cyber hygiene habits.

Why Is Security Awareness Training Important?

Security awareness training is important if you want to ensure that your staff aren’t putting your business’ cybersecurity, IP, and reputation on the line. Without proper knowledge of the cybersecurity risks to businesses, your employees can’t be your first line of defense against outside threats. However, it’s not just outside threats like malicious actors that you need to worry about.

If you’re not already aware of insider threats and their risk to your business, then you may be surprised by the statistics around them. In the linked article, we talk about how official reports have pointed to a 44% increase in insider threat incidents spanning the last two years. In total, companies lost a collective $4.6 million to insider threat incidents in 2020 alone.

These are further reasons why security awareness training is so important. Insider threats are not always malicious; sometimes, they arise purely out of neglect or through common mistakes made by untrained or careless employees.

What Does Security Awareness Training Entail?

So, where once we depended on firewalls to protect our workplace, we now also need our workforce to help prevent a cyber-attack. But a workforce that does not understand what a cyberthreat looks like cannot prevent one from occurring. This is where a well-structured security awareness training program can help.

Security awareness training involves everybody

Security awareness training is typically delivered by a specialized company that has the knowledge to teach your workforce. The idea is that every employee participates, as it is not just IT staff who can make mistakes that lead to a security breach.

Other teams such as customer-facing support or service employees should also be involved, as security issues can arise through simple mistakes made by any employee, including:

  • Allowing an unauthorized person to enter secure premises by “piggybacking” on an employee’s ID card.
  • Clicking on a malicious link embedded within a phishing email that appears to have come from a business contact.
  • Visiting a duped/phishing website that imitates the website belonging to a genuine company.
  • Storing sensitive documentation in an inappropriate or insecure location, such as on a thumb drive or unsecured cloud storage platform.

Security awareness training typically involves teaching staff about the basics of cybersecurity and trying to change user behavior to be more proactive and vigilant. This includes password security issues, using two-factor authentication, the different types of social engineering, online safety, and other relevant techniques.

Some programs may even include phishing simulation exercises too. Gartner keeps a list of well-known security awareness training companies with customer reviews to help you choose the right one for your company.

Training is tailored toward your company’s specific needs

Tailored toward your specific needs iconSecurity awareness training can usually be tailored to your organization’s specific requirements. For example, you may have industry regulations that require you to focus on a specific area. This might be two-factor authentication or data security (for example, the General Data Protection Regulations, or GDPR for short, in Europe).

Training packages can also be tailored to certain areas of the business to keep the program in line with your business goals and operational needs. Many modern security awareness training packages will use gamification of learning modules in the program.

A study by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology found that making security training fun helps with recall and improves adoption. Ultimately, security awareness training helps to build a cohesive company-wide culture that is security-focused.

Once your employees understand what various security issues exist and look like, they’ll be better prepared to protect your business. This safety-first culture ultimately ensures that employees understand their responsibilities and take security seriously.

Benefits of Security Awareness Training

Before you schedule security awareness training for your employees, you’ll want to know that you’re getting value. After all, it’s an investment in your employees. Costs can vary, though it’s common to pay around $8-$10 per employee on a basic package.

For more in-depth programs or those designed for smaller organizations with fewer users, you may pay up to $20 per user. However, the benefits of security awareness training can include:

  • Raising awareness of security threats: One of the most recognizable benefits of cyber security awareness training for employees is that your workers will become more aware of security threats. They’ll have the power to improve their personal security, while also being taught how to spot potential issues before turn into bigger problems.
  • Preventing downtime: Companies lose millions every year handling security incidents. Resolving these issues is time-consuming and expensive. IBM’s Cost of a Data Breach 2021 Report warns us that data breach costs in 2021 rose from $3.86 million to $4.24 million due to lost business.
  • Adhering to industry compliance: Remaining on the right side of your industry’s data security regulations is important. For example, in the United Kingdom, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) can impose fines of up to £17.5 million or 4% of a company’s total turnover for data privacy breaches. Reducing these risks in any way possible is good business sense.

So, now you understand the benefits of security awareness training, but as a business owner, we imagine you’re still asking yourself one question: Does security awareness training really work?

According to a 2019 report by The Aberdeen Group, comprehensive cyber security awareness training can reduce the risk of social engineering cyber attacks by up to 70 percent.

The Fundamentals of Security Awareness Training – At a Glance

Now that you understand what security awareness training seeks to do for your workforce, let’s take a look at some of the most common security awareness program topics on offer. Many of these focus on common cyber-attack methods that are forms of social engineering. Before we dive into those topics, it’s worth understanding what social engineering means.

What is social engineering?

According to security firm PurpleSec, 98 percent of cyber-attacks use “social engineering” to carry out a digital crime. Social engineering is a cover-all term to describe how human behavioral traits are manipulated to help carry out a cybercrime.

The cybercriminal/hacker effectively tries to gain the trust of a victim to extract money or information from them. In some cases, victims are talked into carrying out actions they would not ordinarily consider doing.

Cybercriminals tailor emails, mobile messages, social media posts, and phone calls in such a way as to encourage us to click on malicious links or download malware-infected attachments. Their manipulative tactics include:

  • Brand impersonation: Disguising emails, websites, and other information to look like it has come from a well-known company, such as Facebook, Apple, or government services.
  • A sense of urgency: Phishing emails often use “urgent” messages to encourage a recipient to “click here” or download an attachment within a given timeframe. This is to initiate a knee-jerk reaction so that the user doesn’t have time to think logically before they click.
  • Rewards: Phishing often contains financial or similar rewards to encourage recipients to click on a link. The money, of course, doesn’t actually exist.
  • Helpfulness: Sometimes a phishing email will simply prey on the human desire to be helpful. Whether impersonating an authority figure or not, the malicious actor may coerce a victim into complying with an action that could cause a security breach.

Below, we’ve covered some popular topics from security awareness training programs, most of which rely on social engineering to trick employees into becoming complicit with an attack or making a mistake.

Infographic showing popular topics from security awareness training programs

1. Phishing email scams

Phishing is one of the most common tools in a cybercriminal’s arsenal. They may use threats, such as suggesting that a user’s account has been locked, or promise benefits, such as free merchandise.

Once a user clicks on a malicious link, they’ll likely be directed to a form that’s designed to capture sensitive data. Worse still, their device, which is connected to the company network, could be infected with malware.

So, it’s essential to understand what a phishing scam looks like. A solid training program should show examples of what phishing emails look like, and include learning points such as:

  • Not to trust emails that contain external links
  • To avoid downloading any attachments from an unknown sender
  • Not to make any payments to recipients who request them via email

To give users an idea, here’s an example of a phishing email from Amazon:

Screenshot of an Amazon Phishing Email

What are phishing simulations?

Phishing simulations reproduce the conditions of a real phishing attack. The company will create a phishing simulation exercise tailored to your organization, which will send out realistic phishing emails to anyone taking part.

However, instead of capturing personal data and/or infecting a computer with malware, the phishing email will collect data based on your employee’s reaction. The data usually includes actions performed by the employees, such as clicking on links, downloading attachments, and data on who opened the email.

These metrics can be used to optimize the training of your staff and help you identify where improvements can be made. It’ll also give you a better understanding of how employees perceive security in the workplace.

2. Malware

If a company device is infected with malware, it could cause serious damage. Malware, or malicious software, can be used to steal protected information from within an organization.

Malicious actors can use malware to siphon off financial account data, customer data, user credentials, and more. Worryingly, there are many avenues through which malware can make it into your organization’s network. These include:

  • Phishing scams
  • Unprotected networks
  • Thumb drives
  • Malicious employees (insider threats)
  • Poor security practices

Not only could this mean financial loss resulting from direct theft, but it could even expose your company to legal costs. If found to be in breach of data privacy laws, your company could be fined if your cybersecurity policies are not stringent enough.

3. The dangers of social media and networking

According to Statista, there were around 3.78 billion users on social media worldwide in 2021. Social media is even used for networking now, as LinkedIn for example, is still, by definition, a social media website. However, it’s important to remember that malicious actors target popular platforms, as it gives them a wide pool of potential victims.

These are both reasons why social media training is often included as part of a security awareness training program. Employees should be aware of the dangers of social media at work (and at home), which include:

  • Phishing attacks via messenger applications
  • Malicious actors impersonating brands
  • Accidentally disclosing privileged information

4. Password safety

Another huge threat to businesses is the prevalent use of weak passwords in the workplace. If your organization isn’t using two-factor authentication, it’s only a matter of time until malicious actors can crack weak passwords and gain access to sensitive data.

Aside from encouraging the use of an additional layer of authentication, security awareness training encourages password safety habits such as:

  • Randomly generating strong passwords
  • Using a unique password for every account
  • Ensuring that passwords use a combination of letters, numbers, and symbols
  • Using only the best password managers to securely store credentials

At the very least, a comprehensive training program will ensure that your employees know how to generate a secure password by themselves, even if you don’t use a password manager. This will reduce the risk of a weak password compromising your business’ security.

5. Developing good cyber hygiene habits

The vast majority of office-based employees and those in other industries now have internet access at work. With the explosion in home working arrangements, it’s more important than ever to make sure that your employees have strong cyber hygiene habits.

Essentially, this means making sure that your workers understand what’s considered acceptable use of the internet, and that they know how to spot a threat. For example:

  • Educating employees on the dangers of downloading untrustworthy software
  • Warning employees not to enter credentials into a website without verifying its authenticity
  • Teaching workers how to spot an unscrupulous website, for example, one using an HTTP connection as opposed to HTTPS

Final Thoughts

Cybersecurity is about so much more than simply implementing cybersecurity solutions, such as password managers, VPNs, and antivirus software. Optimizing security within an organization is a multi-part exercise. It involves cybersecurity software, security awareness training, phishing simulations, and business processes and policies.

Cybercriminals are continuously looking for ways into your organization. They also go for the weakest link in any chain. Even a single click on a malicious link within a phishing email can result in an infection with ransomware or stolen database login credentials.

Fighting back against cybercrime through education is one of the best ways to tackle cybersecurity threats. Well-educated staff can be your greatest asset in the fight against cybercrime, as you’ll be creating a human firewall that works in harmony with your technological security solutions.

What Is Security Awareness Training and Why Is It Needed? — Frequently Asked Questions

Got questions about security awareness training or the benefits of cyber security awareness training for your employees? Check out our frequently asked questions below.

Cyber security awareness training involves teaching your workforce to recognize cyber threats so that they can respond appropriately. While you likely already utilize cybersecurity software, your employees can be a weak link in your defenses if not properly educated on the dangers of weak passwords, phishing scams, social media, and more.

Comprehensive cyber security awareness training can massively reduce the risk of cyber threats becoming breaches. A recent report describes how security awareness training reduced the risk of social-engineering attacks by as much as 70 percent.

Security awareness training teaches your employees about cyber threats to your business and good cyber hygiene habits. For example, understanding how to spot a phishing attack, how to avoid being infected with malware, and how to determine if a website is secure.

Cybersecurity journalist
Chris is a tech journalist with many years' experience covering the latest news in online privacy and cybersecurity. He's also a published author and works as a Product Manager for some of the most innovative software development companies.