Security Advice: Bad, Terrible, or Awful

As an industry, we suck at giving advice. I don’t mean this in some negative hateful way, it’s just the way it is. It’s human nature really. As a species most of us aren’t very good at giving or receiving advice. There’s always that vision of the wise old person dropping wisdom on the youth like it’s candy. But in reality they don’t like the young people much more than the young people like them. Ever notice the contempt the young and old have for each other? It’s just sort of how things work. If you find someone older and wiser than you who is willing to hand out good advice, stick close to that person. You won’t find many more like that.

Today I’m going to pick on security though. Specifically security advice directed at people who aren’t security geeks. Heck, some of this will probably apply to security geeks too, so let’s just stick to humans as the target audience. Of all our opportunities around advice, I think the favorite is blaming the users for screwing up. It’s never our fault, it’s something they did, or something wasn’t configured correctly, but still probably something they did. How many times have you dealt with someone who clicked a link because they were stupid. Or they opened an attachment because they’re an idiot. Or they typed a password in that web page because they can’t read. The list is long and impressive. Not once did we do anything wrong. Why would we though? It’s not like we made anyone do those things! This is true, but we also didn’t not make them do those things!

Some of the advice we expect people to listen to is good advice. A great example is telling someone to “log out” of their banking site when they’re done. That makes sense, it’s easy enough to understand, and nothing lights on fire if they forget to do this. We also like to tell people things like “check the URL bar”. Why would a normal person do this? They don’t even know what a URL is. They know what a bar is, it’s where they go to calm down after talking to us. What about when we tell people not to open attachments? Even attachments from their Aunt Millie? She promised that cookie recipe months ago, it’s about time cookies.exe showed up!

The real challenge we have is understanding what is good advice that would supplement a properly functional system. Advice and instructions do not replace a proper solution. A lot of advice we give out is really to mask something that’s already broken. The fact that we expect users to care about a URL or attachment is basically nuts. These are failures in the system, not failures with users. We should be investing our resources into solving the root of the problem, not yelling at people for clicking on links. Instead of telling users not to click on attachments, just don’t allow attachments. Expecting behavior from people rarely changes them. At best it creates an environment of shame but it’s more likely it creates an environment of contempt. They don’t like you, you don’t like them.

As a security practitioner, look for ways to eliminate problems without asking users for intervention. A best case situation will be 80% user compliance. That remaining 20% would require more effort to deal with than anyone could handle, and if your solution is getting people to listen, you need 100% all the time which is impossible for humans but not impossible for computers.

It’s like the old saying, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Or if you’re a fan of the metric system, 28.34 grams of prevention is worth 453.59 grams of cure!

Do you have some bad advice? Lay it on me! @joshbressers on Twitter.

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