Martin Luther King said ‘I have a dream’, not ‘I have a plan’
– Simon Sinek
Engaging end users using marketing, psychology and safety theory.
About Geordie Stewart
His award winning masters thesis at the Royal Holloway Information Security Group examined information security awareness from a fresh perspective as a marketing and communications challenge. In his regular speaking appearances at international information security conferences such as RSA, ISACA and ISSA he challenges conventional thinking on risk culture and communication.
In addition to senior security management roles in large UK organisations Geordie writes the security awareness column for the ISSA international journal.
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?).Details
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.Details
How frustrating is it when you point out the risks to people and they just don’t listen? Every day around the world there are millions of people who smoke, drive too fast and click on strange emails, even though they’ve been repeatedly told about the dangers. They are ‘risk aware’ in the technical sense of the word and yet their behaviour continues. This is a big problem since the mainstream approach to security awareness assumes that all that’s needed to achieve behavioural change is an understanding of the risks. Traditionally when encountering non-compliant behaviour, we security technocrats reiterate the facts and increase the threat of sanctions. But, there is another way.
Luckily for us this is a problem that safety risk communicators have been grappling with for decades. The safety risk communications field has a number of explanatory frameworks to predict how people will react to risk communications. One of the most interesting models to arise is the Extended Parallel Processing Model (EPPM) which seeks to explain why people fail to take action once aware of a threat. This is a goldmine for security professionals looking to apply a more structured, formal approach for promoting behavioural change.
Any endeavour is made doubly difficult when pursued with a lack of metrics and without a clear understanding of cause and effect. When stumbling in the dark, facts are the flashlight of comprehension, illuminating the way forward when the path is unclear. Information security is often required to function in the dark with little in the way of facts to guide us. We hear noises and bump into things but can never be certain if we’re going in the right direction.
When security fails, how do we know? While failures of integrity and availability are obvious, failures of confidentiality can be silent and insidious. Some actors such as LulzSec boast about their exploits and derive their benefits from the resulting publicity. Other actors quietly go about their ‘business’ and organisations may not realise they’ve been breached. Often, even when we do discover failures of confidentiality the organisational interest is to bury it. As a result, our profession is rich in rumours but poor in facts which make it difficult when trying to understand the effectiveness of security controls.Details
I’ve studied it for years, I’ve delivered it and I’ve even sat through it but I’m still not really sure what “it” is.
We talk about raising “security awareness” but what does that actually mean? The dictionary definitions I’ve seen commonly refer to awareness as a state of knowledge about risk. Thousands of articles and books have been written on increasing security awareness but very little time has been spent trying to define it.
The ISF Standard of Good Practice defines security awareness as “the extent to which staff understand the importance of information security, the level of security required by the organisation and their individual security responsibilities.” This seems like a reasonable definition but note that there is no behavioural component. People can (and do!) continue with unsafe behaviour despite their knowledge of the risks. Empirical evidence from outside of information security tells us that just knowing about a risk isn’t enough. Consider smokers and people who drive without using a seat belt. They’re surely all “aware” of the risks but somehow their behaviour continues.Details
I’m back from the ISSA conference in Baltimore. Conferences are a great place to test out ideas to find out which ones stand up to scrutiny. I was giving my “Death by a Thousand Facts” presentation (otherwise known as the We’ve Got It All Wrong Roadshow) when Marcus Ranum pointed out a problem with my application of the term “learned helplessness”.
Learned Helplessness is a concept used to describe the effect when animals essentially “give up” and consign themselves to negative consequences. In a famous series of experiments, Martin Seligman put dogs in pens with a low wall and ran an electric current through the floor to produce an unpleasant sensation. The dogs which had not encountered the shocks before jumped over the wall to escape the sensation. Surprisingly, the dogs which had previously been exposed to shocks which they hadn’t been able to escape essentially “gave up” and lay down in the pen.Details