On Fire Drills and Phishing Tests

In the late 19th and early 20th century, a series of catastrophic fires in short succession led an outraged public to demand action from the budding fire protection industry. Among the experts, one initial focus was on “Fire Evacuation Tests”. The earliest of these tests focused on individual performance and tested occupants on their evacuation speed, sometimes performing the tests “by surprise” as though the fire drill were a real fire. These early tests were more likely to result in injuries to the test-takers than any improvement in survivability. It wasn’t until introducing better protective engineering – wider doors, push bars at exits, firebreaks in construction, lighted exit signs, and so on – that survival rates from building fires began to improve. As protections evolved over the years and improvements like mandatory fire sprinklers became required in building code, survival rates have continued to improve steadily, and “tests” have evolved into announced, advanced training and posted evacuation plans.

In this blog, we will analyze the modern practice of Phishing “Tests” as a cybersecurity control as it relates to industry-standard fire protection practices.

Modern “Phishing tests” strongly resemble the early “Fire tests”

Google currently operates under regulations (for example, FedRAMP in the USA) that require us to perform annual “Phishing Tests.” In these mandatory tests, the Security team creates and sends phishing emails to Googlers, counts how many interact with the email, and educates them on how to “not be fooled” by phishing. These exercises typically collect reporting metrics on sent emails and how many employees “failed” by clicking the decoy link. Usually, further education is required for employees who fail the exercise. Per the FedRAMP pen-testing guidance doc: “Users are the last line of defense and should be tested.

These tests resemble the first “evacuation tests” that building occupants were once subjected to. They require individuals to recognize the danger, react individually in an ‘appropriate’ way, and are told that any failure is an individual failure on their part rather than a systemic issue. Worse, FedRAMP guidance requires companies to bypass or eliminate all systematic controls during the tests to ensure the likelihood of a person clicking on a phishing link is artificially maximized.

Among the harmful side effects of these tests:

  • There is no evidence that the tests result in fewer incidences of successful phishing campaigns;

    • Phishing (or more generically social engineering) remains a top vector for attackers establishing footholds at companies.

    • Research shows that these tests do not effectively prevent people from being fooled. This study with 14,000 participants showed a counterproductive effect of phishing tests, showing that “repeat clickers” will consistently fail tests despite recent interventions.

  • Some (e.g, FedRAMP) phishing tests require bypassing existing anti-phishing defenses. This creates an inaccurate perception of actual risks, allows penetration testing teams to avoid having to mimic actual modern attacker tactics, and creates a risk that the allowlists put in place to facilitate the test could be accidentally left in place and reused by attackers.

  • There has been a significantly increased load on Detection and Incident Response (D&R) teams during these tests, as users saturate them with thousands of needless reports. 

  • Employees are upset by them and feel security is “tricking them”, which degrades the trust with our users that is necessary for security teams to make meaningful systemic improvements and when we need employees to take timely actions related to actual security events.

  • At larger enterprises with multiple independent products, people can end up with numerous overlapping required phishing tests, causing repeated burdens.

But are users the last line of defense?

Training humans to avoid phishing or social engineering with a 100% success rate is a likely impossible task. There is value in teaching people how to spot phishing and social engineering so they can alert security to perform incident response. By ensuring that even a single user reports attacks in progress, companies can activate full-scope responses which are a worthwhile defensive control that can quickly mitigate even advanced attacks. But, much like the Fire Safety professional world has moved to regular pre-announced evacuation training instead of surprise drills, the information security industry should move toward training that de-emphasizes surprises and tricks and instead prioritizes accurate training of what we want staff to do the moment they spot a phishing email – with a particular focus on recognizing and reporting the phishing threat.

In short – we need to stop doing phishing tests and start doing phishing fire drills.

A “phishing fire drill” would aim to accomplish the following:

  • Educate our users about how to spot phishing emails

  • Inform the users on how to report phishing emails

  • Allow employees to practice reporting a phishing email in the manner that we would prefer, and

  • Collect useful metrics for auditors, such as:

    • The number of users who completed the practice exercise of reporting the email as a phishing email

    • The time between the email opening and the first report of phishing

    • Time of first escalation to the security team (and time delta)

    • Number of reports at 1 hour, 4 hours, 8 hours, and 24 hours post-delivery


When performing a phishing drill, someone would send an email announcing itself as a phishing email and with relevant instructions or specific tasks to perform. An example text is provided below.

Hello!  I am a Phishing Email. 

This is a drill – this is only a drill!

If I were an actual phishing email, I might ask you to log into a malicious site with your actual username or password, or I might ask you to run a suspicious command like <example command>. I might try any number of tricks to get access to your Google Account or workstation.

You can learn more about recognizing phishing emails at <LINK TO RESOURCE> and even test yourself to see how good you are at spotting them. Regardless of the form a phishing email takes, you can quickly report them to the security team when you notice they’re not what they seem.

To complete the annual phishing drill, please report me. To do that, <company-specific instructions on where to report phishing>.

Thanks for doing your part to keep <company> safe!

  1. Tricky. Phish, Ph.D

You can’t “fix” people, but you can fix the tools.

Phishing and Social Engineering aren’t going away as attack techniques. As long as humans are fallible and social creatures, attackers will have ways to manipulate the human factor. The more effective approach to both risks is a focused pursuit of secure-by-default systems in the long term, and a focus on investment in engineering defenses such as unphishable credentials (like passkeys) and implementing multi-party approval for sensitive security contexts throughout production systems. It’s because of investments in architectural defenses like these that Google hasn’t had to seriously worry about password phishing in nearly a decade.

Educating employees about alerting security teams of attacks in progress remains a valuable and essential addition to a holistic security posture. However, there’s no need to make this adversarial, and we don’t gain anything by “catching” people “failing” at the task. Let’s stop engaging in the same old failed protections and follow the lead of more mature industries, such as Fire Protection, which has faced these problems before and already settled on a balanced approach. 

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Article_Author: Kimberly Samra