It’s been a huge year for information security in the public eye. Security was constantly in the news and has popped up in ways we never expected. Who could have guessed that phishing attacks and a private email server would help derail a US presidential campaign? We had Apple vs the FBI. Much like the…
There’s an on-going battle to influence public opinion about the balance between privacy and surveillance. Law enforcement officials tell us we’re in danger. Security experts offer commentary. A movie is coming out about Snowden. Some participants in the debate are trying to help inform the public. Others are polluting the debate by cynically exploiting people’s…
It’s been a huge year for security awareness. Terrorist attacks, corporate security breaches and ongoing concerns about government surveillance have meant that people are more aware of information security than ever before. Everyone from politicians to pensioners has been talking about who has access to their data. The beginning of the year saw a lively…
I had a very strange encounter with a PCI auditor recently. On viewing my client’s security awareness portfolio he refused to sign it off as meeting PCI requirements because it didn’t cover ‘everything’. It got me thinking. There are two schools of thought when it comes to communicating risk. The first is the comprehensive approach where all the facts are presented. As part of this mindset, most organisations require their staff to read and agree to a security policy which is usually long and written in formal, contractual language. The majority of employees probably only skim their security policies and even if they did read them in full, would they understand them? Information security can be difficult to understand at the best of times without adding the additional complexity of overly formal and legalese phrasing. The Paretto Principle, or 80/20 rule, suggests that only a small percentage of content really matters but comprehensive approach usually means hiding it
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?
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:
Trust is an incredibly important concept in information security and a vital component of influencing an audience. We know from safety risk communication research that it’s not enough to be an expert in your field. It’s not enough to be correct. You also need to be trusted by your audience. Otherwise your level of influence will be reduced and people may decide to act in ways that challenge your mission objectives.
When I wrote the July column as satire imagining what a GCHQ letter to a supportive member of the public might look like I was poking fun at the unrealistic expectations about our intelligence services that were being perpetuated. That as ‘big brother’ they knew better and were always looking out for our best interests. I recognize now that what I was also doing was challenging the notion that intelligence services innately deserved a high level of trust.
Dear Michael Burgess of Tunbridge Wells in the UK, we in the GCHQ read with interest your recent letter to the Guardian Newspaper in which you state that you’re not bothered if the Government knows what web sites you’ve been visiting. It is refreshing sir, (and we know you are from the scanners at Heathrow airport) to find a true patriot who welcomes the state’s determination to know everything about everyone. Corporate security awareness programs have been advising for years that personal privacy is something that can’t be ‘fixed’ once lost so your willingness to permanently surrender your privacy (and the privacy of anyone you communicate with) is appreciated.