Building on the connection between breaking security policies and cheating, let’s look at a study that asked participants to solve 20 simple maths problems and promised 50 cents for each correct answer.
The participants were allowed to check their own answers and then shred the answer sheet, leaving no evidence of any potential cheating. The results demonstrated that participants reported solving, on average, five more problems than under conditions where cheating was not possible (i.e. controlled conditions).
The researchers then introduced David – a student who was tasked to raise his hand shortly after the experiment begun and proclaim that he had solved all the problems. Other participants were obviously shocked by such a statement. It was clearly impossible to solve all the problems in only a few minutes. The experimenter, however, didn’t question his integrity and suggested that David should shred the answer sheet and take all the money from the envelope.
Interestingly, other participants’ behaviour adapted as a result. They reported solving on average eight more problems than under controlled conditions.
Much like the broken windows theory mentioned in my previous blog, this demonstrates that unethical behaviour is contagious, as are acts of non-compliance. If employees in a company witness other people breaking security policies and not being punished, they are tempted to do the same. It becomes socially acceptable and normal. This is the root cause of poor security culture.
The good news is that the opposite holds true as well. That’s why security culture has to have strong senior management support. Leading by example is the key to changing the perception of security in the company: if employees see that the leadership team takes security seriously, they will follow.
So, security professionals should focus on how security is perceived. This point is outlined in three basic steps in the book The Social Animal, by David Brooks:
- People perceive a situation.
- People estimate if the action is in their long-term interest.
- People use willpower to take action.
He claims that, historically, people were mostly focused on the last two steps of this process. In the previous blog I argued that relying solely on willpower has a limited effect. Willpower can be exercised like a muscle, but it is also prone to atrophy.
In regard to the second step of the decision-making process, if people were reminded of the potential negative consequences they would be likely not to take the action. Brooks then refers to ineffective HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns, which focused only on the negative consequences and ultimately failed to change people’s behaviour.
He also suggests that most diets fail because willpower and reason are not strong enough to confront impulsive desires: “You can tell people not to eat the French fry. You can give them pamphlets about the risks of obesity … In their nonhungry state, most people will vow not to eat it. But when their hungry self rises, their well-intentioned self fades, and they eat the French fry”.
This doesn’t only apply to dieting: when people want to get their job done and security gets in the way, they will circumvent it, regardless of the degree of risk they might expose the company to.
That is the reason for perception being the cornerstone of the decision-making process. Employees have to be taught to see security violations in a particular way that minimises the temptation to break policies.
In ‘Strangers to Ourselves’, Timothy Wilson claims, “One of the most enduring lessons of social psychology is that behaviour change often precedes changes in attitudes and feelings”.
Security professionals should understand that there is no single event that alters users’ behaviour – changing security culture requires regular reinforcement, creating and sustaining habits.
Charles Duhigg, in his book The Power of Habit, tells a story about Paul O’Neill, a CEO of the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa) who was determined to make his enterprise the safest in the country. At first, people were confused that the newly appointed executive was not talking about profit margins or other finance-related metrics. They didn’t see the link between his ‘zero-injuries’ goal and the company’s performance. Despite that, Alcoa’s profits reached a historical high within a year of his announcement. When O’Neill retired, the company’s annual income was five times greater than it had been before his arrival. Moreover, it became one of the safest companies in the world.
Duhigg explains this phenomenon by highlighting the importance of the “keystone habit”. Alcoa’s CEO identified safety as such a habit and focused solely on it.
O’Neill had a challenging goal to transform the company, but he couldn’t just tell people to change their behaviour. He said, “that’s not how the brain works. So I decided I was going to start by focusing on one thing. If I could start disrupting the habits around one thing, it would spread throughout the entire company.”
He recalled an incident when one of his workers died trying to fix a machine despite the safety procedures and warning signs. The CEO called an emergency meeting to understand what had caused this tragic event.
He took personal responsibility for the worker’s death, identifying numerous shortcomings in safety education. For example, the training programme didn’t highlight the fact that employees wouldn’t be blamed for machinery failure or the fact that they shouldn’t commence repair work before finding a manager.
As a result, the policies were updated and the employees were encouraged to suggest safety improvements. Workers, however, went a step further and started suggesting business improvements as well. Changing their behaviour around safety led to some innovative solutions, enhanced communication and increased profits for the company.
Security professionals should understand the importance of group dynamics and influences to build an effective security culture.
They should also remember that just as ‘broken windows’ encourage policy violations, changing one security habit can encourage better behaviour across the board.
 Francesca Gino, Shahar Ayal and Dan Ariely, “Contagion and Differentiation in Unethical Behavior: The Effect of One Bad Apple on the Barrel”, Psychological Science, 20(3), 2009, 393–398.
 David Brooks, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement, Random House, 2011.
 Timothy Wilson, Strangers to Ourselves, Harvard University Press, 2004, 212.
 Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do and How to Change, Random House, 2013.
Many employees find information security secondary to their normal day-to-day work, often leaving their organisation vulnerable to cyber attacks, particularly if they are stressed or tired. Leron Zinatullin, the author of The Psychology of Information Security, looks at the opportunities available to prevent such cognitive depletion.
When users perform tasks that comply with their own mental models (i.e. the way that they view the world and how they expect it to work), the activities present less of a cognitive challenge than those that work against these models.
If people can apply their previous knowledge and experience to a problem, less energy is required to solve it in a secure manner and they are less mentally depleted by the end of the day.
For example, a piece of research on disk sanitisation highlighted the importance of secure file removal from the hard disk. It is not clear to users that emptying the ‘Recycle Bin’ is insufficient and that files can easily be recovered. However, there are software products available that exploit users’ mental models. They employ a ‘shredding’ analogy to indicate that files are being removed securely, which echoes an activity they would perform at work. Such an interface design might help lighten the burden on users.
Security professionals should pay attention to the usability of security mechanisms, aligning them with users’ existing mental models.
In The Laws of Simplicity, John Maeda supports the importance of making design more user-friendly by relating it to an existing experience. He refers to an example of the desktop metaphor introduced by Xerox researchers in the 1980s. People were able to relate to the graphical computer interface as opposed to the command line. They could manipulate objects similarly to the way they did with a physical desk: storing and categorising files in folders, as well as moving or renaming them, or deleting them by placing them in the recycle bin.
Using mental models
Building on existing mental models makes it easier for people to adopt new technologies and ways of working. However, such mappings must take cultural background into consideration. The metaphor might not work if it is not part of the existing mental model. For instance, Apple Macintosh’s original trash icon was impossible to recognise in Japan, where users were not accustomed to metallic bins of this kind.
Good interface design not only lightens the burden on users but can also complement security. Traditionally, it has been assumed that security and usability always contradict each other – that security makes things more complicated, while usability aims to improve the user experience. In reality, they can support each other by defining constructive and destructive activities. Effective design should make constructive activities simple to perform while hindering destructive ones.
This can be achieved by incorporating security activities into the natural workflow of productive tasks, which requires the involvement of security professionals early in the design process. Security and usability shouldn’t be extra features introduced as an afterthought once the system has been developed, but an integral part of the design from the beginning.
Security professionals can provide input into the design process via several methods such as iterative or participatory design. The iterative method consists of each development cycle being followed by testing and evaluation and the participatory method ensures that key stakeholders, including security professionals, have an opportunity to be involved.
 S. L. Garfinkel and A. Shelat, “Remembrance of Data Passed: A Study of Disk Sanitization Practices”, IEEE Security & Privacy, 1, 2003, 17–27.
 John Maeda, The Laws of Simplicity, MIT Press, 2006.
 For iterative design see J. Nielsen, “Iterative User Interface Design”, IEEE Computer, 26(11) (1993), 32–41; for participatory design see D. Schuler and A. Namioka, Participatory Design: Principles and Practices, CRC Press, 1993.
Image by Rosenfeld Media https://www.flickr.com/photos/rosenfeldmedia/2141071329/
Information security can often be a secondary consideration for many employees, which leaves their company vulnerable to cyber attacks. Leron Zinatullin, author of The Psychology of Information Security, discusses how organisations can address this.
First, security professionals should understand that people’s resources are limited. Moreover, people tend to struggle with making effective decisions when they are tired.
To test the validity of this argument, psychologists designed an experiment in which they divided participants into two groups: the first group was asked to memorise a two-digit number (e.g. 54) and the second was asked to remember a seven-digit number (e.g. 4509672). They then asked the participants to go down the hall to another room to collect their reward for participating. This payment, however, could be only received if the number was recalled correctly.
While they were making their way down the corridor, the participants encountered another experimenter, who offered them either fruit or chocolate. They were told that they could collect their chosen snack after they finished the experiment, but they had to make a decision there and then.
The results demonstrated that people who were given the easier task of remembering a two-digit number mostly chose the healthy option, while people overburdened by the more challenging task of recalling a longer string of digits succumbed to the more gratifying chocolate.
The implications of these findings, however, are not limited to dieting. A study looked at the decision-making patterns that can be observed in the behaviour of judges when considering inmates for parole during different stages of the day.
Despite the default position being to reject parole, judges had more cognitive capacity and energy to fully consider the details of the case and make an informed decision in the mornings and after lunch, resulting in more frequently granted paroles. In the evenings, judges tended to reject parole far more frequently, which is believed to be due to the mental strain they endure throughout the day. They simply ran out of energy and defaulted to the safest option.
How can this be applied to the information security context?
Security professionals should bear in mind that if people are stressed at work, making difficult decisions, performing productive tasks, they get tired. This might affect their ability or willingness to maintain compliance. In a corporate context, this cognitive depletion may result in staff defaulting to core business activities at the expense of secondary security tasks.
Security mechanisms must be aligned with individual primary tasks in order to ensure effective implementation, by factoring in an individual’s perspective, knowledge and awareness, and a modern, flexible and adaptable information security approach. The aim should therefore be to correct employee misunderstandings and misconceptions that result in non-compliant behaviour, because, in the end, people are a company’s best asset.
 B. Shiv and A. Fedorikhin, “Heart and Mind in Conflict: The Interplay of Affect and Cognition in Consumer Decision Making”, Journal of Consumer Research, 1999, 278–292.
 Shai Danziger, Jonathan Levav and Liora Avnaim-Pesso, “Extraneous Factors in Judicial Decisions”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(17), 2011, 6889–6892.
Photo by CrossfitPaleoDietFitnessClasses https://www.flickr.com/photos/crossfitpaleodietfitnessclasses/8205162689
The Psychology of Information Security – Resolving conflicts between security compliance and human behaviourPosted: November 26, 2015
In today’s corporations, information security professionals have a lot on their plate. In the face of constantly evolving cyber threats they must comply with numerous laws and regulations, protect their company’s assets and mitigate risks to the furthest extent possible.
Security professionals can often be ignorant of the impact that implementing security policies in a vacuum can have on the end users’ core business activities. These end users are, in turn, often unaware of the risk they are exposing the organisation to. They may even feel justified in finding workarounds because they believe that the organisation values productivity over security. The end result is a conflict between the security team and the rest of the business, and increased, rather than reduced, risk.
This can be addressed by factoring in an individual’s perspective, knowledge and awareness, and a modern, flexible and adaptable information security approach. The aim of the security practice should be to correct employee misconceptions by understanding their motivations and working with the users rather than against them – after all, people are a company’s best assets.
I just finished writing a book with IT Governance Publishing on this topic. This book draws on the experience of industry experts and related academic research to:
- Gain insight into information security issues related to human behaviour, from both end users’ and security professionals’ perspectives.
- Provide a set of recommendations to support the security professional’s decision-making process, and to improve the culture and find the balance between security and productivity.
- Give advice on aligning a security programme with wider organisational objectives.
- Manage and communicate these changes within an organisation.
Based on insights gained from academic research as well as interviews with UK-based security professionals from various sectors, The Psychology of Information Security – Resolving conflicts between security compliance and human behaviour explains the importance of careful risk management and how to align a security programme with wider business objectives, providing methods and techniques to engage stakeholders and encourage buy-in.
The Psychology of Information Security redresses the balance by considering information security from both viewpoints in order to gain insight into security issues relating to human behaviour , helping security professionals understand how a security culture that puts risk into context promotes compliance.
When there is a need to quickly determine where a company is standing in terms of the maturity of its security programme, I developed the below questionnaire which can be useful in this endeavour.
|1.||Information security policy|
|1.1||Is there an information security policy that is appropriate to the purpose of the organisation, gives a framework for setting objectives, and demonstrates commitment to meeting requirements and for continual improvement?|
|1.2||Is the policy documented and communicated to employees within the organisation and available to interested parties, as appropriate?|
|1.3||Is there an established ISMS policy that is ensuring the integration of the information security management system requirements into the organisation’s processes?|
|2.||Information security risk assessment and treatment|
|2.1||Has an information security risk assessment process been defined and applied?|
|2.2||Is there an information security risk treatment process to select appropriate risk treatment options for the results of the information security risk assessment, and are controls determined to implement the risk treatment option chosen?|
|3.||Planning and measuring|
|3.1||Are measurable information security objectives and targets established, documented and communicated throughout the organisation?|
|3.2||Does the organisation determine what needs to be done, when and by whom, in setting its objectives?|
|4.1||Does the organisation conduct internal audits at planned intervals to provide information on whether the information security management system conforms to requirements?|
|5.1||Does the leadership undertake a periodic review of the information security processes and controls, and ISMS?|
|6.||Corrective action and continual improvement|
|6.1||Does the organisation react to the nonconformity and continually improve the suitability, adequacy and effectiveness of the information security management system?|
|7.1||What security laws and data protection legislation apply to the organisation?|
Download the full Questionnaire (with instructions)
Image courtesy Pong / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Have you seen security controls being implemented just to comply with legal and regulatory requirements? Just like this fence. I’m sure it will pass all the audits: it is functioning as designed, it blocks the path (at least on paper) and it has a bright yellow colour just as specified in the documentation. But is it fit for purpose?
It turns out that many security problems arise from this eager drive to comply: if the regulator needs a fence – it will be added!
Sometimes controls are introduced later, when the project is well passed the design stage. It might be the case that they just don’t align with the real world anymore.
Safety measures, unfortunately, are no exception. The solution may be poorly designed, but more often, safety requirements are included later on with the implementation not fit for purpose.
Same holds for privacy as well. Privacy professionals encourage to adopt the Privacy by Design principle. Is it considered on the image below?
A company experienced a significant data breach from a malicious source which led to the loss of strategically sensitive information. I was called in to manage a security remediation project. Given that data at rest is a critical asset, remediating and hardening the company’s business critical databases was a key component of this program.
The client designed a solution for database security but was struggling to implement it and gain the required stakeholder buy-in. Furthermore, the client’s business critical landscape was highly dispersed – with application management spread across multiple business units based out of a number of countries and database management was overseen by third-party IT vendor.
I was a part of the project management team, which was established to coordinate multiple stakeholders in order to implement the end-to-end solution for database security consisting of monitoring, reporting and remediation of business critical databases.
I identified that the most significant obstacle was business application owner understanding of the system, the processes, and the benefits of implementation. I initially engaged in extensive stakeholder communication and business change management to ensure the required buy-in.
I drove the progress of system implementation through stakeholder management, delivery management, information gathering and providing technical expertise and management reporting. I worked within the client’s project management methodology whilst leveraging my experience and expertise in project management to ensure timely delivery.
As a result, the business critical databases in scope were brought into the known state of compliance, drastically reducing the attack surface. Moreover, awareness of the importance of application security and secure behaviours to support databases was raised significantly.
I embedded the processes to implement the system into the client’s run and maintain activities, ensuring that future changes to their business critical landscape do not introduce new database vulnerabilities. I also developed an asset inventory for business critical databases which improved upon any previous client efforts.
Image courtesy ddpavumba / FreeDigitalPhotos.net