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Conference proceedings | Research library
| 15/07/2018

User Context: An Explanatory Variable in Phishing Susceptibility

Kristen K. Greene | Michelle P. Steves | Mary F. Theofanos | Jennifer Kostick

Extensive research has been performed to examine the effectiveness of phishing defenses, but much of this research was performed in laboratory settings. In contrast, this work presents 4.5 years of workplace-situated, embedded phishing email training exercise data, focusing on the last three phishing exercises with participant feedback. The sample was an operating unit consisting of approximately 70 staff members within a U.S. government research institution. A multiple methods assessment approach revealed that the individual’s work context is the lens through which email cues are interpreted. Not only do clickers and non-clickers attend to different cues, they interpret the same cues differently depending on the alignment of the user’s work context and the premise of the phishing email. Clickers were concerned over consequences arising from not clicking, such as failing to be responsive. In contrast, non-clickers were concerned with consequences from clicking, such as downloading malware. This finding firmly identifies the alignment of user context and the phishing attack premise as a significant explanatory factor in phishing susceptibility. We present additional findings that have actionable operational security implications. The long-term, embedded and ecologically valid conditions surrounding these phishing exercises provided the crucial elements necessary for these findings to surface and be confirmed.

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