Government-Run Energy Company Keeps Reeling in the Same Employees in Phishing Training


The Tennessee Valley Authority has a good initial phishing training program in place but lacks real consequences for those that fail.

The Tennessee Valley Authority—a government-operated electric power utility—is at risk of falling prey to cyberattacks through phishing attempts, as the agency’s training program shows serious gaps, according to an inspector general report.

While TVA has a sound phishing education regime, the agency IG found the program lacks real consequences for employees who repeatedly fail the training. During an assessment of the program, the IG also found evidence that TVA’s repeat offenders are failing their annual training at a higher rate than the industry average.

Cyberattacks—and specifically phishing—are a serious problem for the energy sector. The Energy and Homeland Security departments have issued several warnings about phishing attempts and other cybersecurity threats, including alerts from the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team, or US-CERT, part of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, or CISA.

For instance, a 2018 alert warned energy sector companies of a Russian government campaign to infect power grid networks with malware through a persistent phishing campaign dubbed Dragonfly.

“DHS and FBI characterize this activity as a multi-stage intrusion campaign by Russian government cyber actors who targeted small commercial facilities’ networks where they staged malware, conducted spear phishing and gained remote access into energy sector networks,” US-CERT warned in the March 2018 alert. “After obtaining access, the Russian government cyber actors conducted network reconnaissance, moved laterally and collected information pertaining to industrial control systems.”

In the audit report, TVA IG cites 2019 Verizon Data Breach Investigations report statistics, which found that 32% of all breaches included a phishing component.

To combat this ever-present security concern, TVA IT officials instituted an annual training requirement for all personnel that access the network. According to the IG, that training includes “informational content on phishing, how to identify it and what to do if employees receive a phishing email.”

To ensure this training is effective, the agency purchased a tool for internal phishing tests that periodically sends fake malicious emails to users. Those who fail the test—by clicking through and entering sensitive credentials on a faux-malicious site—must watch an educational video, with an additional training course for repeat offenders.

However, with all these tools and punishments in place, the agency does not have formal procedures in place for conducting the exercises or follow-up training. Further, officials have not established any consequences for employees who do not take the training, despite the fact that it is formally required.

The TVA IG reviewed a year of results through the phishing training module and found the failure rates were on par with industry averages. However, the failure rate for repeat offenders was noticeably higher.

As auditors dug in further, they found the repeat offender training—the educational video—has been ineffective.

“Specifically, most users who were provided the education video closed it before it completed and some users who completed the educational video failed follow-up phishing exercises,” the report states.

Auditors found that while TVA’s policies and procedures for initial training were sufficient, there were no formal procedures for repeat offenders. The IG also discovered a correlation between employees who repeatedly failed the annual training and those who pushed it off beyond the deadline.

And while TVA has serious consequences in place for employees that skip the general cybersecurity awareness training—disabling the user’s network ID—there are no repercussions for users who miss the phishing training deadlines.

The IG made three recommendations TVA Vice President and Chief Information Officer Jeremy Fisher:

  • Update the content and delivery of end-user training to improve phishing awareness.
  • Consider potential consequences for repeat offenders that do not take the required training prior to their assigned deadline.
  • Update procedures to include requirements for periodic phishing exercises, follow-up training, and potential consequences for not taking the required training prior to the deadline.

TVA officials agreed with all three.

Of note, auditors only assessed the quality of TVA’s training program and “did not include technical controls TVA has in place to prevent, detect and mitigate phishing attempts,” according to the report.