What the Oscars can teach us about security

If you watched the 89th Academy Awards you saw a pretty big mistake at the end of the show, the short story is Warren Beatty was handed the wrong envelope, he opened it, looked at it, then gave it to Faye Dunaway to read, which she did. The wrong people came on stage and started giving speeches, confused scrambling happened, and the correct winner was brought on stage. No doubt this will be talked about for many years to come as one of the most interesting and exciting events in the history of the awards ceremony.

People make mistakes, we won’t dwell on how the wrong envelope made it into the announcer’s hands. The details of how this error came to be isn’t what’s important for this discussion. The important lesson for us is watch Warren Beatty’s behavior. He clearly knew something was wrong, if you watch the video of him, you can tell things aren’t right. But he just kept going, gave the card to Faye Dunaway, and she read the name of the movie on the card. These people aren’t some young amateurs here, these are seasoned actors. It’s not their first rodeo. So why did this happen?

The lesson for us all is to understand that when things start to break down, people will fall back to their instincts. The presenters knew their job was to open the card and read the name. Their job wasn’t to think about it or question what they were handed. As soon as they knew something was wrong, they went on autopilot and did what was expected. This happens with computer security all the time. If people get a scary phishing email, they will often go into autopilot and do things they wouldn’t do if they kept a level head. Most attackers know how this works and they prey on this behavior. It’s really easy to claim you’d never be so stupid as to download that attachment or click on that link, but you’re not under stress. Once you’re under stress, everything changes.

This is why police, firefighters, and soldiers get a lot of training. You want these people to do the right thing when they enter autopilot mode. As soon as a situation starts to get out of hand, training kicks in and these people will do whatever they were trained to do without thinking about it. Training works, there’s a reason they train so much. Most people aren’t trained like this so they generally make poor decisions when under stress.

So what should we take away from all this? The thing we as security professionals needs to keep in mind is how this behavior works. If you have a system that isn’t essentially “secure by default”, anytime someone find themselves under mental stress, they’re going to take the path of least resistance. If this path of least resistance is also something dangerous happening, you’re not designing for security. Even security experts will have this problem, we don’t have superpowers that let us make good choices in times of high stress. It doesn’t matter how smart you think you are, when you’re under a lot of stress, you will go into autopilot, you will make bad choices if bad choices are the defaults.

2 Comments

  1. Nice article. I reminded that in some countries, there is a crime practised by phone where a criminal passes by a hijacker and says he has kidnapped a relative of yours. They make the people to end up pronouncing the name of the alleged victim, making it easy to manipulate them from there, because they are in autopilot caused by stress.

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  2. Good points, but I have to ask what kind of training can we give to ourselves and our users? Most security training seems to be focused on remembering and repeating facts, or very technical details. In the military we would regularly “train as we fight”, and that meant for me at least spending weeks on end in tents and getting pretend shot at, etc. Maybe, we should develop some kind of social engineering regime, so people can learn to spot and know how to react to such things? What about for the people in charge of implementing security, how do we address when they are under stress and facing deadlines? Usually they too take the path of least resistance to get something out the door, and move something into production that is less secure. How do we train for that?

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