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The What & How of Role-Based Security Awareness Training

Role-based training is playing a bigger and bigger role in the world of security awareness and managing human risk. So, what exactly is it, why should you care and ultimately, how does one build a role-based training program?

What is Role-Based Security Awareness Training?

First, what is role-based training? Ultimately, it is providing the right training to the right people and nothing more. Traditional security training can often be a one-size-fits-all solution where everyone takes the same training. For certain topics this makes sense. For example, just about everyone has passwords so the entire workforce should most likely be trained on how to create and use strong passwords / authentication. Just about everyone can be targeted for scams, so the entire workforce should most likely be trained on how to spot and stop social engineering attacks. Topics like these are called “core” or “foundational” training as it’s training that applies to everyone.

However, there are often certain topics that do not apply to everyone. For example, compliance training like PCI-DSS only needs to be provided to people who handle cardholder data, or the people who manage the systems that store or process cardholder data. Not everyone may have administrative accounts, so not everyone needs training on privileged access. Role-based training means you go above and beyond just foundational training for everyone and create additional specialized training for specific roles, as different roles have unique responsibilities and unique risks.

Compliance-driven role-based training

The two most common categories of role-based training are compliance driven and risk driven. Compliance driven role-based training is training for certain roles to meet certain compliance standards, which is usually driven by the type of data someone handles. For example, GDPR training is required for anyone handling Personally Identifiable Information (PII) of an EU resident. HIPAA training is required for anyone handling PHI (Personal Healthcare Information) in healthcare. Role-based training is for risk reasons. Certain roles are often considered higher risk, as they are more likely to be actively targeted (such as an Accounts / Payables employee). If an incident does happen in such roles, it can cause far greater harm due to the fact that these people are working with highly sensitive data, systems, or applications (such as IT Admins or Developers). These roles require additional training to address their unique risks; often this training is far more technical in nature.

Compliance role-based training is usually the simpler of the two and has been around for years. You first identify the standards you need to comply with (such as PCI-DSS), the roles that fall under the standard (anyone who handles cardholder data or the systems that manage cardholder data), and provide the required training. This training is often already available from security or compliance vendors. The goal is ultimately checking the box, making sure you meet the training requirements of the different standards. A key to success with compliance training is keeping it as short as possible, as it can be frightfully boring, especially if people have to train on multiple compliance standards. To both identify the roles and source the training, you will most likely have to work with your audit, compliance, legal and / or GRC (Governance, Risk, Compliance) teams.

Compliance-driven role-based training

Risk driven role-based training is newer in that it is very much driven by managing human risk. Certain roles represent your greatest human risk, so you need to manage that risk by providing them specialized training. This can be much more challenging than compliance driven role-based training. First, you need to identify which roles you consider your greatest risks, then identify the unique risks to each role. This often requires a risk assessment, which is usually done by the security team. However, security teams typically assess risk from a technical perspective, and may struggle or not have experience assessing risk from the human perspective. Once you have identified the high-risk roles, you then identify the unique risks within that role. Once that is done, you can identify the concepts, skills, and behaviors that will manage those unique risks. You can then create your role-based training, which is often technical and requires the assistance of a subject matter expert (SME). Let’s take IT Admins for example, this is one of the most common roles I see organization’s identify as high risk and attempt to provide additional security training for. IT Admins have a very challenging job, as they have to maintain the systems, accounts and quite often, applications that store and process the organization’s most sensitive data. If these individuals make a mistake or are compromised, the impact can be very high – and the probability of something bad happening is only increasing. Not only are IT Admins more actively targeted, but as technology is constantly advancing, they have the challenging job of staying current. Have you ever been confused on how the cloud actually works? Well, you know what, IT Admins can quite often get confused too.
    Role-based training is often the next step for organizations that already have a foundational security awareness program in place.
Developing role-based training for a technical role like an IT Admin requires partnering with multiple groups. First, you have to partner with your IT Admins, identify what their role actually is, which systems or people they interact with, what is expected of them, and what are their biggest challenges and issues. These should be individuals that have a good relationship with the security team or understand and believe in the need for security training. Then you will also have to partner with your security team or several security SMEs to identify what training, skills, and behaviors will help manage those risks. For example, training on how to properly patch systems so they are current, how to work with vendors, how to securely enable remote access, or how to configure applications with least privileges by default. Some organizations even train their IT Admins to become human sensors with advanced training on how to identify the indicators of compromise on a server and what to do if they suspect a system has been hacked. The challenge with this type of role-based training is the training must be created by people who understand the technical issues, and that the training is communicated in a technical manner, speaking the language of the role you are attempting to secure. This is what makes risk focused role-based training far more challenging (but also more important) than traditional compliance focused role-based training. Role-based training is often the next step for organizations that already have a foundational security awareness program in place. While role-based training has traditionally been compliance driven, in today’s world we are also seeing it play more of a managing human risk role, especially as technical roles such as IT Admins and Developers are key to securing today’s organizations. To learn more about role-based security training, take the three-day SANS MGT433: Managing Human Risk course.

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