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Journal article | Research library
| 01/02/2021

Phishing for long tails: Examining organizational repeat clickers and protective stewards

Matthew Canham | Clay Posey | Michael Constantino

Organizational cybersecurity efforts depend largely on the employees who reside within organizational walls. These individuals are central to the effectiveness of organizational actions to protect sensitive assets, and research has shown that they can be detrimental (e.g., sabotage and computer abuse) as well as beneficial (e.g., protective motivated behaviors) to their organizations. One major context where employees affect their organizations is phishing via email systems, which is a common attack vector used by external actors to penetrate organizational networks, steal employee credentials, and create other forms of harm. In analyzing the behavior of more than 6,000 employees at a large university in the Southeast United States during 20 mock phishing campaigns over a 19-month period, this research effort makes several contributions. First, employees’ negative behaviors like clicking links and then entering data are evaluated alongside the positive behaviors of reporting the suspected phishing attempts to the proper organizational representatives. The analysis displays evidence of both repeat clicker and repeat reporter phenomena and their frequency and Pareto distributions across the study time frame. Second, we find that employees can be categorized according to one of the four unique clusters with respect to their behavioral responses to phishing attacks—“Gaffes,” “Beacons,” “Spectators,” and “Gushers.” While each of the clusters exhibits some level of phishing failures and reports, significant variation exists among the employee classifications. Our findings are helpful in driving a new and more holistic stream of research in the realm of all forms of employee responses to phishing attacks, and we provide avenues for such future research.

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