We spend a lot of time talking about how to raise security awareness. We fill entire books, columns and conferences with it. However, anything that can go up must also go down. How about we turn the phrase on its head and ask what lowers security awareness? Just as there are behaviours that raise security awareness there are also some that lower security awareness. But what can we do about it? Name and shame was an important step in getting software vendors to deal with security vulnerabilities in their products. We should be equally critical when human vulnerabilities are created through the promotion of unsafe attitudes and behaviours. In this column I’m going to name and shame particularly egregious examples which I think reduces security awareness.
Here’s a trivia question for you – how did President George Washington die? No points for anyone who thought he died in battle, fell from a horse or was poisoned. Actually, he had an infection and suffered massive blood loss. Why he suffered massive blood loss is fascinating. For thousands of years people were convinced that blood could become stale and that ‘bad humours’ could cause illness for which bloodletting was the solution. When Washington became sick, his staff did the natural thing at the time and bled him. When he didn’t improve his staff bled him some more. Then the doctor was called and when he arrived Washington was bled again. All told, Washington lost some 6 pints of blood in a 16 hour period. He had a severe infection to be sure, but it’s likely that the massive blood loss significantly contributed to his demise.
Sometimes, how we define a problem limits our ability to solve it. Innovation counts for nothing if the approach itself is the problem. Physicians focused on how to let blood more effectively for thousands of years. Elaborate rituals developed to define where on the body blood could be taken from to fix specific aliments. Contraptions such as scarificators were invented to help people administer their own bloodletting – you didn’t have to visit someone to get them to do it for you (ever wondered what the red on a barber’s pole stood for?).
There’s no denying that some people are impervious to our attempts at security awareness and refuse to listen to warnings or instructions. There is a temptation when things go wrong to label such people as ‘bad apples’. I think that this saying is overused. Originally, the expression ‘bad apple’ referred to a rotten apple in a barrel that would spoil the good apples. Usage of the phrase has changed and its now often used to explain failures of scale. The perception is that when there are many apples you have to expect some of them to be bad.
I often hear the phrase used when a governance failure is attributed to human mistakes. Frequently however, I think the phrase bad apple is a convenient cover for poor management where processes and procedures were badly designed or supervised. The bad apple narrative can suit prejudices of humans being a weak link and any narrative is more comforting than no narrative at all. However, bad apple narratives rarely withstand serious scrutiny.
Whoever said that there’s no such thing as a stupid question, only a stupid answer, has probably never seen a feedback survey for security awareness training sessions. Questions such as “Did you learn anything?” and “Do you feel more secure?” are as common as they are idiotic. I guess its largely shaped by the motives of who is asking the question. The trainers involved are primarily interested in demonstrating that they are good trainers and questions are designed to elicit complimentary feedback. Feedback surveys are a great chance to obtain valuable feedback, but only if we’re asking the right questions.
In this column we’re going to look at training feedback surveys in more detail. Getting useful feedback from training sessions is challenging, but not impossible. For a start, you need to be aware of people’s biases. Surveys measure ‘declared preferences’ since they rely on people expressing their views. While easier to gather, declared preferences have inherent biases that need to be acknowledged and allowed for when interpreting the results. ‘Revealed preferences’ are what people actually do but measuring what people do accurately and efficiently can be difficult especially if people know they’re being observed. Here are some suggestions for allowing for people’s biases while obtaining reliable survey data.