Have security professionals helped make the privacy of citizens around the world ‘collateral damage’ in the hunt for terrorists?
Due to Edward Snowden’s disclosures we are now aware that millions of people have been unwittingly monitored by systems of indiscriminate surveillance. Many of these systems, having been developed in secret, were only possible due to the support of a large number of security professionals. We can suppose that the creators and operators of these systems are attempting to achieve legitimate objectives on behalf of their respective societies. What is less clear is if these systems do more harm than good or if the costs and risks of these activities have been fully understood, let alone accepted by the societies that bear the costs. Do the costs and potential harms of indiscriminate systems outweigh the benefits? Has privacy been compromised without due cause? If so, is it ethical for security professionals to support such systems?
Why do people ignore security warnings? Why do they pay attention to some advice but ignore others? Why are spammers and phishers apparently so good at getting people’s attention? Over the course of each day, we often receive dozens of warnings. We’re told that web sites are using untrusted certificates, that downloads might harm our computers and that scripts may be unsafe. We’re so used to these warnings that we hardly even notice them anymore. But what makes an effective warning message? Why do people stop and consider some messages but happily ignore others?
It can be a real challenge to get people to read and act on warning messages. After years of effort trying to educate people about risk you would think we would have a good understanding of how people’s risk attention works. That’s not the case. As technical experts in the area of information security, our focus has been largely on what steps people need to take to remain secure. In comparison, we have a very poor understanding of how people choose to listen to our advice or not. We have some basic narratives around ‘idiotic users’ and ‘learned helplessness’, but little in the way of empirical evidence.
Large scale awareness programs can be challenging with so many topics to cover, so many different communication options and such varied audiences to consider. Also, your communication efforts will be competing with background noise. Every day, people are bombarded with advice. Exercise more, eat more greens and don’t click on dodgy links. The question is how you can make the most of the limited time and attention available. The Pareto Principle, also known at the 80/20 rule, proposes that 80% of consequences come from 20% of causes. If we apply this to security awareness it implies that 80% of the risk comes from 20% of topics. The problem is in knowing which 20% of users and content this applies to.
Senior management support® is something often mentioned as critical to the success of an information security awareness campaign. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, senior management help direct the usage of resources within the organization. Without their support, you won’t get much of a training budget, permission to take staff away from productive duties and you might even struggle to get a room booking. Secondly, managers set the tone for behavior in the organization and it’s common for staff to imitate their manager. This is often exhibited in the way they dress like their managers and also when they behave like their managers. Do your managers scoff that ‘the rules’ are for everyone else? That training is only for the IT-illiterate and don’t bother to show up? The bad news is that many of your staff will copy these behaviors.
A common objective of information security awareness is to encourage whistleblowers to use internal mechanisms to report their concerns. External whistleblowing and the airing of concerns in public view risks brand damage and exposure of sensitive information. The Snowden affair has shown how divided we are on the ethics of external whistleblowing. To date, much of the debate has been speculation about Snowden’s character flaws. Sometimes when trying to understand a controversial decision such as Snowden’s it helps to understand the chain of events leading up to the decision since failures in complex systems can rarely be given justice in a single newsbyte. In this case there are a series of failures that occurred prior to the employee of a subcontractor deciding to flee the country and leak sensitive information to foreign journalists: