The Knowledge, Intention and Behavior Gap in Cybersecurity: How to Close It

While technology plays a crucial role in strengthening organizational defenses, it is not the sole solution to cybersecurity challenges. Cybercriminals understand that the easiest way to breach an organization, even those with top-notch security controls, is through exploiting the human element.

Verizon's 2023 Data Breach Investigation Report reveals that nearly three-quarters of security breaches (74%) involve the compromise of the human layer. Attackers frequently leverage social engineering, stolen credentials, and human errors to infiltrate organizations. Although businesses recognize this, annual security training often becomes a mere checkbox activity that fails to effectively change employee behavior.

No amount of security training can prevent 100% of phishing attacks. Similarly, no technology-based defense is foolproof. Organizations must combine both elements, placing particular emphasis on the human layer responsible for most breaches. By prioritizing behavior, organizations can enhance their security awareness programs, reduce human-related risks, and bolster their overall cybersecurity defenses.

The Knowledge, Intention and Behavior Gap
Being "security aware" does not automatically translate to security-conscious behavior. Just as drivers may knowingly ignore traffic signs or speed limits, employees often disregard security protocols due to distractions, urgency, or competing priorities. Even with the right intentions, individuals may struggle to consistently follow through. This is akin to New Year's resolutions that we often abandon, despite knowing they are beneficial. The same dynamic occurs in cybersecurity.

Creating Effective Security Awareness Programs
In acknowledging the existence of a knowledge, intention, and behavior gap, organizations must prioritize behavior over awareness. Programs and strategies should be intentionally designed to foster security reflexes, habits, and mindsets.

By instilling these attributes, employees are more likely to respond appropriately when confronted with phishing emails or social engineering attacks, such as promptly reporting suspicious activity. This, in turn, enables security teams to proactively mitigate risks. Let's explore key steps for developing a more robust and effective security awareness program.

  1. Define objectives and conduct a baseline assessment. Outline the goals of your program clearly and establish metrics for measuring success. Conduct an initial assessment to understand the organization's current security awareness levels, patterns, behaviors and attitudes.
  2. Have the right metrics in place. Metrics are essential for assessing program progress, effectiveness, and value. Calculating the phish-prone percentage (PPP) can indicate an employee's likelihood of falling victim to phishing scams. To calculate the PPP, run simulated phishing tests and record the number of failures. Divide this number by the total number of delivered emails to determine the PPP metric. And remember, click rate is not everything. It is also important to track positive behaviors – a good example being the number of employees who report suspected phish or other security incidents.
  3. Hire the right people. Effective security awareness programs require skilled individuals with experience in organizational development, behavior change programs, and security. Look for candidates well-versed in creating appropriate content and learning experiences while fostering a security-oriented culture.
  4. Foster a security culture. Security teams and executives must reinforce security in a positive manner. Instead of reprimanding employees for mistakes, approach them with empathy, kindness, and respect. Deliver training that aligns with their learning abilities and security maturity. Recognize and highlight stories of good security behavior to motivate others. And remember to build these into your metrics and tracking.
  5. Mobilize influencers. Identify and engage influential individuals within the organization to help shape and nurture the security culture. These influencers, whether leaders or advocates, can reinforce security messages among their peers and subordinates.
  6. Think like a marketer. Make learning enjoyable and memorable by utilizing techniques employed in media commercials. Incorporate frequent and redundant training, particularly during onboarding and provide regular reminders. Create marketing materials, hold interactive meetings, and conduct tabletop exercises to engage employees.
  7. Conduct simulated social engineering tests regularly. Conduct regular simulated social engineering campaigns helps build security intuition and muscle memory. It familiarizes employees with real-life attack scenarios and reinforces the importance of security. Aim for monthly simulated phishing campaigns and increase the frequency for high-risk targets.

Cybersecurity is no longer just an IT issue. Companies must balance the operational, technical, and human aspects of their security strategies. As organizations continue to work remotely, the human element behind security becomes more urgent. By creating a comprehensive security awareness program, companies can proactively prepare their workforce to identify and report potential security threats. Such programs can foster a security-conscious culture that encourages employees to be active partners, human firewalls in mitigating threats.

About the Author

Perry Carpenter is co-author of the recently published, “The Security Culture Playbook: An Executive Guide To Reducing Risk and Developing Your Human Defense Layer.” [2022, Wiley] His second Wiley book publication on the subject. He is chief evangelist and security officer for KnowBe4, provider of security awareness training and simulated phishing platforms, with 60,000 customers and more than 45 million users. 


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