Making Fun of Security

Information security awareness is about marketing a message in a way that has a positive impact on the audience. The message needs to either alter people’s perceptions of risk, help people understand cause and effect or motivate them to control risks. The marketing industry has been doing this for years and are arguably the experts in ‘selling’ behavioural change. The first rule of marketing is that you need to attract and hold the interest of your audience. To do this reliably, a message needs to have emotional affect. Advertisements can make people laugh by showing a man in a gorilla suit playing the drums. Or, advertisements can make people feel guilty about children in Africa. Or envy by wanting to imitate the dress style of an idol. Usually though, it’s humour which has long been a stock standard way of attracting attention to a message. Most advertisement humour is on a level with awkward dad-dancing but somehow it works. Do you recall a marketing message that made you happy? Maybe you emailed a link to your friends because

The Power of Stories

Some of the greatest advances of human civilization are normalized over time and are eventually seen as ordinary. Fire, electricity and the combustion engine all revolutionized human existence but are no longer seen as exceptional. Another significant advance which is largely taken for granted is language. That is, our ability to communicate and share experiences outside of our immediate existence. The ability to communicate has meant that we don’t have to personally suffer from a hazard to be wary of it. It’s also mean that we can pre-equip people with expectations of social norms without having to personally violate each social norm in turn in order to understand it. One of us was impacted from a threat or transgressed a social norm and then shared the experience either through oral traditions or through writing. A good example of this is the traditional fairy tales which are told to children from a young age. Through these stories, children learn about dangers such as strangers and moral lessons to help them understand right and wrong. For example, children learn that going into someone else’s house and testing the temperature of breakfast dishes and the softness of chairs without permission is likely to result in an unpleasant confrontation. What better way to get a child’s attention than a story about a confrontation with household occupants who are both angry and bears?

Where NIST SP800-50 Went Wrong

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is updating 800-16 (A Role-Based Model for Federal Information Technology/Cybersecurity Training). Many will be familiar with NIST 800-50 (Building an Information Technology Security Awareness and Training Program) which was published in 2003 and has aged badly. In many regards, the problems with 800-50 stem from how the security…

Information Security Policies

A good information security policy is normally the starting point when promoting security awareness. However, organizations often implement policies in very different ways. Surprisingly, despite security polices being common practice for decades, we still have trouble agreeing what a good security policy looks like. Too long, too short, too dictatorial, too polite. It’s a subject…

Warning: Don’t Read This

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?

Personas For Security Awareness

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.

The Importance of Executive Support

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.

If You See Something, NSA Something

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:

Uncle Sam Needs Your Trust

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.

Where Do Security Awareness Topics Come From?

I’m amazed at how many people are offering advice on what information security topics I should be deploying. They seem to know what training is needed despite having never met me or my beautiful users and not knowing anything about my organisation or it’s goals. There are plenty of top ten lists of awareness topics. Numerous generic training packages are available on the internet. I’ve got nothing against generic awareness materials or topic lists as such. In fact some of it is very professional and far better than individual organisations could create. While it might be easy to use someone else’s training package or use their list of recommended training topics that doesn’t necessarily make it a good idea. I worry that we haven’t properly defined the problem that we’re trying to solve. If training material X is the solution, what was the problem?