Everyone agrees that employees who unthinkingly click on email links and attachments pose a security risk. But should they be punished for making a bad click?

Within the small circle of specialist anti-phishing training firms an interesting difference in tone has recently become apparent with the outspoken KnowBe4 founder Stu Sjouwerman arguing last week in an interview with Techworld sister title Network World that tough love was sometimes necessary for repeat offenders.

Within days of Sjouwerman putting his views on the record, rival training firm PhishMe published a blog explaining its opposition to the notion that punishment is a good idea without name-checking his comments directly.

“We believe that punishing users is a misguided idea that will alienate them and make it difficult to ever improve user security behaviour,” said PhishMe’s marketing vice president, Allan Carey.

“A user base that lives in fear of reprisal will weaken your security by being afraid to provide information about threats. If, as a security administrator, you have scared your users from reporting incidents, then aren’t you part of the problem as well?”

On closer inspection, the difference of opinion turns out to be less a schism than one of procedure.

“It needs to be communicated that there are consequences,” said Sjouwerman, also a former co-founder of Sunbelt Software, in a call with Techworld. “Once they [users] understand it they change their behaviour.”

As with all firms in this space, KnowBe4 carries out an initial test of a firm’s employees to spot employees who are more prone to phishing attacks. The average uncovered is around 16 percent, which subsequent training over a period of months (using more simulated phishing attacks) can reduce to around the 1-2 percent mark.

The question is how to address the hard-core of employees that don’t improve enough, or at all. One in a hundred employees doesn’t sound like a lot but it is more than enough to cause large organisations a major problem, especially if the attack involves some degree of targeting.

According to Sjouwerman, the basic principle of anti-phishing awareness is simple. “Any email that has either a link or attachment is suspect.”

Sjouwerman's general point is probably stating the obvious. An employee continuing to click on dangerous links after being told not to is likely to be told off in any organisation even if that hasn't been spelled out during training; irresponsible behaviour can be cast as a disciplinary issue in the same way that any form of work behaviour can.

Sjouwerman makes clear that he prefers not to use the world 'punishment' when discussing this issue. That suggests a potentially counter-productive retribution when what is needed is a change in behaviour.

The issue matters because it underlines the way that modern security is a human and not just technological problem.

“Let’s get out of the geeky mindset of admonishing the ‘stupid user’; instead, make them part of your organization’s security posture by cultivating relationships through open communications and positive criticism,” argues PhishMe’s Carey.

Perhaps Sjouwerman is just thinking beyond this general scenario. If education fails, what’s next?