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24 Mar 2009

Revised NIST security awareness/training standard

I've been reading and thinking today about a revised NIST Special Publicatio SP800-16, currently released for public comment. If you are genuinely interested in making security awareness more effective, I recommend setting aside an hour or three to read and consider the draft document.

To whet your appetite, here are just a few short paragraphs from one section of the draft, with my own thoughts and comments cited below.

Under section 2.2.1 of SP800-16, NIST says:
"Awareness is not training (1). Security awareness is a blended solution of activities (2) that promote security, establish accountability, and inform the workforce of security news (3). Awareness seeks to focus an individual’s attention on an issue or a set of issues (4). The purpose of awareness presentations is simply to focus attention on security (4). Awareness presentations are intended to allow individuals to recognize information security concerns and respond accordingly. (2)

In awareness activities the learner is a recipient of information, whereas the learner in a training environment has a more active role. (2) Awareness relies on reaching broad audiences with attractive packaging techniques. Training is more formal, having a goal of building knowledge and skills to facilitate job performance. (5)

A few examples of information security awareness materials/activities include:
• Events, such as an information security day,
• Briefings (program- or system-specific or issue-specific)
• Promotional/specialty trinkets with motivational slogans,
• A security reminder banner on computer screens, which comes up when a user logs on,
• Security awareness video tapes, and
• Posters or flyers. (6)

Effective information security awareness efforts must be designed with the recognition that people tend to practice a tuning-out process called acclimation. If a stimulus, originally an attention-getter, is used repeatedly, the learner will selectively ignore the stimulus. (6) Thus, awareness delivery must be on-going, creative, and motivational, with the objective of focusing the learner's attention so that the learning will be incorporated into conscious decision-making. This is called assimilation, a process whereby an individual incorporates new experiences into an existing behavior pattern. (3 & 5)

Learning achieved through a single awareness activity tends to be short-term, immediate, and specific. For example, if a learning objective is “to facilitate the increased use of effective password protection among employees,” an awareness activity might be the use of reminder stickers for computer keyboards. (7)

The fundamental value of information security awareness programs is that they set the stage for awareness training and role-based training by bringing about a change in attitudes which should begin to change the organizational culture. The cultural change sought (8) is the realization that information security is critical because a security failure has potentially adverse consequences for everyone. Therefore, information security is everyone’s job. (9)"

My comments:

(1) The terms "awareness", "training" and "education" are often used interchangeably and sometimes combined, as in "awareness training". However, they are different activities with different mechanisms and purposes. SP800-50 “Building an Information Technology Security Awareness and Training Program” covers this point rather eloquently, better in fact than SP800-16 and FISMA which tie themselves in knots over the terminology.

(2) If you can read past the much abused second word of "blended solution of activities", the real point is that awareness requires a range of separate but complementary activities - and by "activities" I mean things that involve physical actions by both the information givers and the information receivers. I am talking about proactive learning, not passive entertainment or "edutainment". The most important part of a training course is not the presentation slides or other materials, the presenter, the facility or the audience: it's the engagement, interest and interaction that happens when members of the audience become inspired to change what they do thereafter.

(3) Informing people, in other words providing relevant facts about information security risks and controls, is an important element of awareness, training and education but is not in itself sufficient, in most cases. Erudite but boring and dry factsheets have limited impact and can be counterproductive. News stories are just one way to bring information security to life, reminding people that we are not talking purely hypothetically about security incidents. They are really happening around us, and not just Out There in the news headlines but much closer to home, affecting us, our colleagues, friends and families, and of course our organization and society. Getting personal on information security matters is a good way to engage with people.

(4) Focus is important. Generic, bland "be more secure" messages are a total waste of brain cycles. People need to know what, specifically, they should be worried about and what they should do ... but first they need to open up in order to even receive the message. Making people "wake up and smell the coffee" is one option but is not the only way (I'll speak about other techniques another time). Focus, to me, includes getting straight to the point - being direct and avoiding unnecessary fluff or irrelevancies. It also includes picking on specific information security topics, providing more depth than is typical of those rushed security induction training classes.

(5) Building knowledge and skills to enhance job performance is all very well but has little value unless people actually use the knowledge and skills when they get back to work. Achieving this is the crux of effective awareness, training and educational activities. Unless people are taken beyond the point of being mere receptacles for facts and are motivated to behave more securely, the program is not going to earn its keep.

(6) Notice that "forcing employees to sit down en masse in a stuffy meeting room or lecture theatre while some boring IT geek or clueless manager spouts off about information security" does not feature in NIST's list of worthwhile activities, but is not far from the truth in some organizations! Awareness, training and education take creativity and passion. It's not that hard really. [For lots more ideas, thing such as case studies with role plays, crosswords, competitions etc. see NoticeBored!]

(7) Taking focus to the extent of a single awareness activity covering just a single information security control might perhaps be necessary if that one control is conspicuously failing but seems unlikely to cover the full breadth of security controls that employees should understand and respect, in any reasonable timeframe. Coupling this point with comments about keeping the content interesting implies to me the need to run quite rapidly through a sequence of topics, moving ahead at or just before the point that eyelids start to droop. This idea of a rolling awareness program, in my experience, makes all the difference but there's one more little point to bear in mind. "Sequences" can be random or directed. A random assortment of information security topics may achieve the coverage desired but misses the opportunity to link together successive topics into a more coherent security story. Being smart about the sequence and scope of the topics leads to a more subtle form of the old teacher's saw "Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them". We can introduce future topics and refer back to previous topics, all while delivering the present topic. The interrelatedness of information security topics makes this quite easy to achieve with just a bit of thought and planning. The advantage is a level of coherence and reinforcement that random assortments don't achieve.

(8) Now there's a thought: we are seeking "cultural change" are we? Great idea, one I thoroughly endorse ... but unfortunately for many managers, security awareness is less about achieving cultural change than about "being seen to be Doing Something" or, even worse, "doing it for compliance reasons". Health and safety training finds itself in the same pickle. Effective H&S training has a lasting impact on what employees do as they go about their normal business activities, long after the ink has dried on the training evaluation forms. It's about putting on the ear muffs and safety goggles even when there's nobody else looking. It means taking a moment to deal with a trip hazard in a public thoroughfare even when you yourself have clearly spotted and avoided the hazard. Achieving cultural change to create a "culture of security" is a fabulous objective, one that's much easier to say than to do. For me, it goes somewhat beyond the rather simplistic if important ideas noted in section 2.2.1, picking up concepts such as:
  • Providing continuity - planning awareness activities over the long term (and I don't mean 'scheduling next year's security awareness session'!);
  • Addressing the entire organization (staff and managers), in fact the scope can usefully cover the extended organization including friends and relatives of employees, contractors/consultants, outsource suppliers, customers, suppliers, business partners, other stakeholders and, to some extent, society at large
  • Using creativity to create interest and engage people with the program, and retaining that interest indefinitely;
  • Being sensitive to cultural norms, communications preferences and so forth for the audiences - notice the plural: it makes little sense to focus all the security awareness activities on one homogeneous audience when we know full well that business units, departments, teams and individuals vary markedly in many key respects. "Selling" copyright compliance to, say, an Indian or Chinese business unit is a rather different prospect to getting the same point across to a Scandinavian organization. For some people, the 3 minute high level overview is more than enough: for others, 3 minutes would not be nearly enough for the briefest of introductions;
  • Taking audience engagement to the extent of active audience participation, for example encouraging managers, IT professionals and employees to converse on the same information security topic, putting their respective points of view in the context of a shared understanding of the terms and concepts involved.
(9) If "information security is everyone's job", it ought to be in everyone's job descriptions - not a bad idea in itself but I feel there's a bit more to it. "Information security is everyone's responsibility" takes it a step further since it is not purely a job-related thing, and hints at a vital security concept, that of ownership, accountability and responsibility. "Information security is what we do" might be a bit excessive, but I prefer the word "we" in there since it is clearly a shared responsibility. [Arguing about the specific meaning and nuance of every word smacks of the crazy process of developing corporate mission statements. However, the discussion is at least if not more valuable than the product, rather like planning and plans. Discussing such security principles leads to a common understanding and is a good way to engage senior managers with the awareness program.]

Right, that's section 2.2.1 duly considered. I'll stop there for now, leaving consideration of the remaining 156 pages as an exercise for you dear reader - homework if you will. NIST welcomes comments on the draft SP800-16 until June 26th 2009 by email to 800-16comments@nist.gov.


  1. Great post, Gary. Thanks for the notice about the new NIST pub. It's good to see your take on it. Sounds like you're sort of endorsing it, but have some concerns. I'll also have a more detailed look.

    In the end, I don't know if we'll ever really resolve the debate about awareness vs. training vs. education. But whether it's edutainment, awareness, training or making good risk decisions, I don't think management will shell out for it if the objective is simply being presented or sold as a general "security improvement". As you say, it's too generic to act on.

    That's why I agree that we need to start by providing a quick shotgun approach, that highlights good "general risks, tips and benefits" first to get people's attention in innovative ways. Then dig deeper to engage in discussion about business processes. To grab attention, I like to refer to spin-off benefits that managers can related to, like: improvements in quality, productivity, compliance, reduced liability, customer satisfaction, employee satisfaction and industry leadership.

    Of course, I find that you also have to put in a small dose of "holy-crap!" to add some urgency.

    One of the things I believe managers will easily buy into is the idea of immediate risks from the inexorable creep in "personal use" of business resources and time. This can be an effective springboard for getting back to fundamental topics like business objectives, employee accountability, obligations and processes improvements.

    Just my 2 cents worth.

    - Scott

  2. A very informative post.

    A information security awareness program must be planned like any other major project in your organization. Behavioural change is not easy and requires continuous reinforcement. You need to create a project, assign a project manager, and recognize a project champion. Creating a project includes defining business objectives and scope (what’s included and what’s not) in a document. The document needs to be clearly defined and must appoint those who will be held accountable. The document will then act as a guide from planning to implementation to the effectiveness of outcomes.

  3. While I agree with the general thrust of your comment, Leigh Ann, I'm personally a bit dubious about focusing too much on security awareness as a project since, once established, the awareness program should ideally be integrated into the fabric of the organization, becoming a routine part of business as usual. Your comments apply in the main to an awareness implementation project, when planning, scoping and leadership are important. Once it's running, I rather like the idea that security awareness gets wrapped into the routine improvement activities, particularly of course the information security improvement activities that are part of an effective Information Security Management System.

    And Scott, your highlighting of spin-off benefits of awareness is right on the nose. I wrote a case study once on the back of a presentation by the CEO of a small firm that had recently achieved its ISO/IEC 27001 certification. He was genuinely enthusiastic about the value of information security for his firm, mentioning most of the benefits you listed. He said, for example, that they completed an inventory of information assets and business processes as a prelude to classifying them and preparing contingency arrangements for assets supporting critical processes. Management were able to cut down the inventory dramatically, saving loads of software license and maintenance fees and releasing hardware for other tasks. He made the point that they could have done this anyway but the security drive was the impetus for change ... and he went on to describe many others. Overall, an impressive level of backing for information security from a senior manager whose job was not obviously security-related, in a narrow sense.

    Thanks both for your comments. I'm glad someone is reading this stuff and being stimulated by it - it makes the effort to write it worthwhile.