The other day I ran across someone trying to keep their locker secured by using a combination lock. As you can see in the picture, the lock is on the handle of the locker, not on the loop that actually locks the door. When I saw this I had a good chuckle, took a picture, and put out a snarky tweet. I then started to think about this quite a bit. Is this the user’s fault or is this bad design? I’m going to blame bad design on this one. It’s easy to blame users, we do it often, but I think in most instances, the problem is the design, not the user. If nothing is ever our fault, we will never improve anything. I suspect this is part of the problem we see across the cybersecurity universe.
One of the great truths I’m starting to understand as I deal with humans more and more is that the one thing we all have in common is that we have waves of unpredictability. Sometimes we pay very close attention to our surroundings and situations, sometimes we don’t. We can be distracted by someone calling our name, by something that happened earlier in the day, or even something that happened years ago. If you think you pay very close attention to everything at all times you’re fooling yourself. We are squishy bags of confusing emotions that don’t always make sense.
In the above picture, I can see a number of ways this happens. Maybe the person was very old and couldn’t see. I have bad eyesight and could see this happening. Maybe they were talking to a friend and didn’t notice where they put the lock. What if they dropped their phone moments before putting the lock on the door. Maybe they’re just a clueless idiot who can’t use locks! Well, not that last one.
This example is bad design. Why is there a handle that can hold a lock directly above the loop that is supposed to hold the lock? I can think of a few ways to solve this. The handle could be something other than a loop. A pull knob would be a lot harder to screw up. The handle could be farther up, or down. The loop could be larger or in a different place. No matter how you solve this, this is just a bad design. But we blame the user. We get a good laugh at a person making a simple mistake. Someday we’ll make a simple mistake then blame bad design. It is also human nature to find someone or something else to blame.
The question I keep wondering; did whoever design this door think about security in any way? Do you think they were wondering how a system can and would fail? How would it be misused? How it could be broken? In this case I doubt there was anyone thinking about security failures for the door to a locker, it’s just a locker. They probably told the intern to go draw a rectangle and put a handle on it. If I could find the manufacturer and tell them about this would they listen? I’d probably get pushed into the “crazy old kook” queue. You can even wonder if anyone really cares about locker security.
Wrapping up a post like this is always tricky. I could give advice about secure design, or tell everyone they should consult with a security expert. Maybe the answer is better user education (haha no). I think I’ll target this at the security people who see something like this, take a picture, then write a tweet about how stupid someone is. We can use examples like this to learn and shape our own way of thinking. It’s easy to use snark when we see something like this. The best thing we can do is make note of what we see, think about how this could have happened, and someday use it as an example to make something we’re building better. We can’t fix the world, but we can at least teach ourselves.
One thought on “Security fail is people”
Another possible explanation: the locker was empty (or empty of valuables) because the person was nearby. They wanted easy access to the locker but they didn't want someone to take their lock. So they locked the lock on the handle to secure the lock itself, not the locker.I've done this myself many times — I've unlocked a gate and clipped the lock on the fence. It keeps the lock safe and I don't have to carry it with me. It also protects against well-intentioned passersby from locking me inside. Better yet, locking it in a very visible place (like the locker handle) reminds me to relock it when I finally leave. Yes it was insecure, but the risk was low compared to the time saved.Or: the locker was empty but it was the person's favorite. Leaving the lock on the handle might be an easy way to reserve it.Or: the lock was found on the floor and it was open. Someone else found it and wasn't completely sure who owned it, so they locked it in a visible place in a way that only the owner could retrieve it.I guess my overall point is that we all have a tendency to assume(!) anything outside our expectations is a mistake, that we know best, other people are idiots, etc, when there may actually be a completely valid reason we just haven't thought of. There's probably a software development analogy in there somewhere…Love your blog, love your podcast, keep it up!