The Psychology of Information Security – Resolving conflicts between security compliance and human behaviour

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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.

It’s now available for pre-order on the UK, EU or US websites.

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Giving a lecture at the Royal Holloway University of London

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I was invited by the RHUL Computing Society to give a lecture on human aspects of security.

After my presentation, I gave the students an exercise to help them understand the different perspectives on information security policies. As a result, they learned the importance of the role of information security in an organisation and it’s important enabling function.

It was really nice to get such an active participation on their behalf. After the talk we had an interesting conversations on current security research trends and opportunities.

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Presenting at the ISACA London Chapter event

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I shared some research findings with the ISACA London Chapter members at the November event. We discussed resolving conflicts between security compliance and human behaviour. The talk was followed by a panel discussion with other presenters, where I answered questions regarding human aspects of information security.

During the networking session after the presentation I’ve had many other interesting conversations with the participants. People were sharing their stories and experiences implementing and auditing security controls.

The video of the talk is available on the ISACA London Chapter website.

Find out how security controls affect productivity in your company

 

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To expand on my research on the human aspect of security, I created a simplified model to highlight the relationship between productivity and security. The main hypothesis, is that there is a productivity cost associated with the security controls.

The interactive simulation was created to allow users to implement their own security policies and observe the relationship between risk reduction and impact on productivity cost. Easy to understand visual feedback is available immediately for the users. This helps to understand security managers’ perspective when implementing security controls in a company.

The creation of the model was inspired by research conducted by Angela Sasse and her colleagues at the University College London.

Please get in touch if you have any feedback or would like to discuss the underlying research findings.

Productive Security

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Let’s see how some security controls might affect human behaviour in a company.

  • Restricting software installation on computers is in line with one of the main principles of information security – the principle of least privilege. That way a security manager can make sure that employees in his company don’t install unnecessary programs which may contain vulnerabilities. Such vulnerabilities can be exploited by a potential attacker. There are instances, however, when a user may require a piece of software to perform his productive tasks. Failure to install it quickly and easily may result in unnecessary delays.
  • Restricting access to file sharing websites helps to make sure that a company is not in violation of the data privacy regulation and users don’t store sensitive information in the insecure locations. However, it is important for a company to provide an easy-to-use, secure alternative to enable the business.
  • Restricting access to CD/DVD and USB flash drives. Personal USB flash drives can be a source of malware which users can introduce to the corporate network. Restricting access to CD/DVD and USB flash drives not only helps to prevent this threat, but also limits the possibility of sensitive data leaks. It is important to understand the core business processes in a company to make a decision on restricting the access. Sometimes drawbacks of such a policy may overshadow all possible benefits.
  • Regular full antivirus checks help to make sure that employees’ workstations are free from malware. However, the process of scanning a computer for viruses may take up a lot of resources and slow down the machine with the possible impact on productivity,
  • Awareness training can be a powerful measure to protect against a wide range of security threats, including social engineering (e.g. phishing). However, research shows that blanket awareness campaigns are ineffective and a better approach is needed to address this issue.

Image courtesy of renjith krishnan/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Discussing Human Aspects of Information Security

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I delivered a seminar on the human aspects of information security at the University of West London. We discussed conflicts between security and productivity in companies and possible solutions. Research students with different backgrounds helped to drive the debates around usability, awareness and policy design.

We also talked about the practical applications of behavioural theories, where I shared my views on user monitoring and trust in organisations within the context of security culture.

Daniel, one of the participants, summarised his experience in his blog.

Image courtesy of Vlado / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Mo Amin: You can transform technology but how do you transform people?

Mo Amin – Information Security Professional

Mo

Can you please tell us a little bit about your background?

Long ago in a galaxy far far…oh ok…ok…Just like a lot of people in IT I got asked the same question “My PC has died, can you help me?” When you say yes to one person it’s a downward spiral…and before you know it you’re THE computer guy! Even now I (depending on my mood) will help out. So this was my first real experience in building rapport with clients, charging for my time and to a certain extent being held accountable for the service I provided.

I taught me a lot and was a catalyst in helping me to land my first role in desktop support. I was part of a small team which allowed me to get involved in some network and application support too. Whilst doing my day role I was involved in a couple of investigations, which got me interested in information security and through a few lucky breaks I slowly moved into the field. I’ve been lucky enough to have worked in a number of areas ranging from operational security through to consultancy. However, I’ve always intrinsically enjoyed the awareness and education side of things.

What is it that you are working on at the moment?

I am working with Kai Roer of The Roer Group to help develop the Security Culture Framework. Essentially, the framework aims to help organisations to build a security culture within their business, as opposed to simply relying on topic based security awareness. Making sure that organisations begin to build a security culture into their business is something I believe in strongly. So when Kai asked if I’d like to help I was more than happy.

Let’s talk for a moment about information security in general. What do you think are the biggest challenges that companies are facing at the moment?

I think that one of the biggest challenges is educating staff on the risks that the business faces and getting people to understand and relate to why it is that we are asking them to adopt secure practices. The problem revolves around changing the attitude and overall culture of an organisation. In my humble opinion, this is the biggest challenge. The difficulty lies in changing behaviour because you can change technology but how do you positively change the behaviour of people?

What is your approach or proposed solution to this challenge? What should companies do?

I’ve always learned by seeing something in action or by actually doing it. Obviously, within the context of a busy organisation this isn’t easy to do.  However, as information security practitioners, professional or however we label ourselves we need to be more creative in our attempts to help those that we work with – we need to make awareness more engaging. I think it’s important to have workshops or sessions in breakout areas where staff can come along see how quickly weak passwords are cracked, what can happen if you click on that dodgy but enticing looking attachment. It’s about visualising and personalising threats for people, for example, if you plan your awareness programme carefully you could map your corporate security messages for the home environment and provide your staff with a “Top 10 of do’s and dont’s” Make it creative and engaging and the messages that you give for their home environment they will begin to bring them back to the office.

Lots companies offer security awareness training, which doesn’t seem to have much of an impact. What do you think about these trainings? Should they be changed in some way in terms of targeting, or accounting for individuals’ particular needs, or focusing on behaviour?

The problem is that most of this is simply topic based awareness, in that it’s not seeking to change behaviour. There seems be to be a lot of generic content that applies to everyone in an organisation. Sadly this is a tick-box exercise for the purposes of compliance. Awareness should be unique to your organisation where you cater for different personality types as best you can.  Some people actually like reading policies where as some prefer visual aids, so the ways that individuals learn needs to be better understood. The process of educating your staff should be a sustained and measured programme; it needs to be strategic in its outlook.

What about communication?

Better engagement with the business is what we need to be doing. Our relationships with the likes of legal, HR, finance, marketing, PR should be on an everyday basis not only when we actually need their expertise. These departments usually already have the respect from the business. Information security needs to be seen in the same light.

How do you identify the relevant stakeholders and establish communication with them, and further propagate the whole process of communication within the organisation?

Grab a copy of the organisation chart and start from there. Your job is to introduce yourself to everyone. In my experience doing this over a coffee really helps and preferably not in a meeting room, because it is better to create a new business relationship in a social context, wherein the other person gets to understand you, firstly as a human being and secondly as a work colleague. Most importantly, do this at the beginning and not two months down the line. Building relationships at the very beginning increases your chances of being in the position of asking for last minute favours and paves the path for easier collaboration, as opposed to having to ask for people’s help when they don’t even know you. Usually people are open and honest. They may have a negative image of information security, not because they don’t like you, but most likely because of the interaction they’ve had in the past.

So let’s say that you have joined a new organisation that has a very negative preconception of information security because of a bad previous experience. Once you have already identified all the key people you have to work with, how do you fight this negative perception?

You need to find out what was done previously and why the outcome was negative in the first place. Once you’ve established the actual problem, you have to diffuse the situation. You need to be positive, open and even simple things like walking around and talking to people – show your face. Visit different departments and admit any failings, you need to do a PR and marketing exercise. In a previous role I’ve actually said

“I know what went wrong the last time, I know we screwed up. I want to ask you what you want to see from the information security department from now on.”

People are ready to engage if you are, be personable and be professional. It’s surprising how much positive and usable feedback you actually get.

The majority of the time, people will tell you,

“I just want to be able to do my job without security getting in the way”.

Once you have these sorts of conversations going you begin to understand how the business actually functions on a day-to-day basis. It’s at this stage where you can be influential and change perception.

Delivering a Seminar at the IT Security & Computer Forensics Pedagogy Workshop

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I presented at the HEA STEM Workshop on human aspects of information security.

The aim of the workshop is to share, disseminate and stimulate discussions on: the pedagogy of teaching subjects related to IT security and computer forensics, and issues relating to employability and research in these areas.

During the workshop the speakers presented topics that focus on: delivery of innovative practical tutorials, workshops and case studies; course design issues; demand for skills and employment opportunities; countering the “point & click” approach linked to vendor supplied training in industry; and current research exploring antivirus deployment strategies.

Modern security professionals while fighting cyber threats also have to take human behaviour into account

In today’s corporations, information security managers have a lot on their plate. While facing major and constantly evolving cyber threats, they must comply with numerous laws and regulations, protect the company’s assets, and mitigate risks as best as possible. To address this, they have to formulate policies to establish desired practices that avoid these dangers. They must then communicate this wanted behavior to the employees so that they adapt and everything can go according to plan. But is this always the case?

Security managers often find that what they put on paper is only half of the story. Getting the corporation to “cooperate” and follow the policy all the time can be far more challenging than it seems. So why do employees seem to be so reluctant?

Are we even asking the right question here?

The correct question is: do security managers know what imposing new rules means to the average employee within the company?

People’s behavior is goal-driven. If processes are imposed on them, people will usually follow them, as long as they still allow them to achieve their goals. If they come across situations where they are under pressure, or they encounter obstacles, people will cut corners, break rules and violate policies.

So why should the behavior of a corporation’s employees be an exception? They will usually follow the rules willingly while trying to comply with the security policy, but, at the end of the day, their objective is simply to get their work done.

Yes., there are cases of employees who have a malicious goal of intentionally violating security policies, but research shows that policy violations will most likely result from the controls implementation that prevented people from performing their tasks.

What happens to an organization when honest workers can’t achieve their goals because of poorly implemented security controls? What happens on the security manager’s end and on the employees’ end that leads to this scenario? A short survey I performed in 2013 shows that there is a huge gap between the employees’ and the security managers’ perceptions of security policies; and it’s this discrepancy that negatively impacts the organization as a whole. Security managers, on their side, assume that they have made all the relevant considerations pertaining the needs of the employees. However, the fact is that they rarely speak directly to the employees to familiarize themselves with their tasks, their needs, and their goals. It is therefore usual to hear employees complain about how security controls hinder or impede their performance.

Let’s consider the following scenario:

In an investment bank, a security manager comes up with a policy document, outlining a list of authorized software which can be installed on computers, according to the principle of least privilege: people can only have the access they require to perform their day-to-day activities and no more. All employees are denied access to install any new software without written permission from the security manager.

John is writing a report for the client. The deadline is fast approaching but he still has a lot of work ahead of him. The night before the deadline, John realizes that in order to finish his work, he requires a special data analysis software which was not included in the list of authorized programs. He is also unable to install it on his workstation, because he doesn’t have the required privileges. Getting the formal written approval from the security manager is not feasible, because it is going to take too long. John decides to copy the sensitive information required for the analysis on his personal computer, using a flash drive, to finish the work at home, where he can install any software he wants. He understands the risk but he also wants to get the job done in order to avoid missing the deadline and get good performance review. Unfortunately, he leaves his bag with the flash drive in the taxi on the way back home. He never tells anyone about this incident to avoid embarrassment or a reprimand.

The security manager in this scenario clearly failed to recognize the employee’s needs before implementing the controls.

A general rule of thumb to never forget is that employees will most likely work around the security controls to get their work done regardless of the risks this might pose, because they value their main business activities more than compliance with security policies.

To address this, security managers should consider analyzing security controls in a given context in order to identify clashes and resolve potential conflicts adjusting the policy. They should also communicate the value of security accordingly. Scaring people and imposing sanctions might not be the best approach. They should instead demonstrate to the employees that they contribute to the efficient operation of the business when they comply with security policies. Not only does security ensure confidentiality and the integrity of information, but it also makes sure that the resources are available to complete their primary tasks.

Employees need to understand that security is something that important for achieving the company’s goals, not something that gets in the way. To achieve this, the culture of the organisation must change.

Javvad Malik: One of the biggest challenges that companies are facing is securing at the same rate of innovation

Interview with Javvad Malik – Senior Analyst at 451 Research and blogger at http://www.J4vv4D.com

Javvad

Could you start by telling us about yourself?

My first proper job was during my work placement year during my degree as an IT security administrator at NatWest Bank which, to be honest, I had no idea what this job was about. Actually, very few people knew what it was. But as a student doing a degree in Business Information Systems, I needed to specialise in something and so I went and took this job to see if I could make any sense of this field. I figured that this bank was a huge company and if things didn’t work out in IT Security, I could always explore opportunities in other departments.

Back in the day, there was around seven people in the security operations team for the whole bank, and only three for the monitoring team with whom we only had an intermittent communication. NatWest was then acquired by RBS and I remained in IT security for the next five years, during which I moved more to the project-side of security, as opposed to the operations-side. I had more interactions with the internal consultancy-team and their job appealed to me, because they didn’t seem to need to keep so up-to-date with all the latest technologies from a hands-on perspective and they made more money.. I was unable to make an internal move so I decided to get into contracting and stayed within financial services, where the majority of my roles involved arguing with auditors, resolving issues through internal consulting, being the middle-man between the business and pen-testers, project reviews, and the sort.

On the side, I got very interested in blogging. Blogs were the new fantastic boom readily accessible and cheap for everybody. Suddenly everybody with a blog felt like a professional writer, which I enjoyed, but found it a difficult area in which one could differentiate or bring a unique perspective to. I then tried video blogging, which I discovered was bloody hard, because it takes a lot of skills to help you look like a professional instead of like an idiot most of the time. But because I was among the first to get into this type of delivery mode, my profile was raised quite quickly within the security community, and perhaps to an even broader one. One of the advantages to video blogging that I uncovered was that people who watch you can somehow relate to you better than if they just read your work: they can see your body language, hear your voice, your tone, everything. The result is quite funny, because it often happens to me that when I go to a conference, somebody will greet me as if I’m their best friend. Because they see me so often on YouTube, they feel like they know me. It’s very nice when people acknowledge you like that, and it goes to show that the delivery channel really has that impact.

So because of this impact, one day, Wendy, the research director at 451 Research, asked me if I would be interested in becoming an analyst. In reality I had no idea what an analyst did. She said that I would have to speak to vendors and write about them, which sounded a lot like blogging to me. She immediately said, “yes, it is pretty much like blogging,” to which I then replied, “well, I have my demands. I do video blogging, I’d like to attend and speak at conferences and I don’t want any restrictions here, because I know that many companies impose restrictions around this kind of activity.”

Currently I’ve been an analyst for the past two years, which I have enjoyed very much and has allowed me to broaden my skillset; not to mention give me the opportunity to meet a ton of extremely talented people.

Where do you predict will the security field go?

When I was starting in the field, nobody really knew what security was. Then came the perception that it was all about hackers working from their mums’ basements. Then, they were assumed to be IT specialists, and then that they were specialists who didn’t necessarily know much about IT but who knew more about the risk and/or the government background and now everyone is just confused

Security itself is very broad. It is kind of like medicine: you have GPs who know a little bit about everything, which is the base level of knowledge. For complex cases they will refer you to other doctors who specialise in, say, blood, heart, eyes, ears, and other specific body parts. The same applies to security. You will have some broad generalists and others who are technical experts or those who are more into security development and can tell you how to use code more securely.  You then have non-technical security people, who know more about understanding the business, the risk, and how to implement security into it. You also get product or technology specific experts who are only there to maybe tune your SIEMs for you, forensics experts, incident-response specialists, and so on. You will find specialists with overlapping skills, just as you will find those who possess unique abilities as well. Security has exploded “sideways” like that. So you can call lots of people “security experts” but in reality they are very different from each other, which means that they are not necessarily interchangeable. You can’t, obviously, switch a non-technical person for a technical one. I believe that one of the signs of immaturity within the industry is that people still don’t recognize these differences, which often leads to lots of finger-pointing in situations like: “you don’t know how to code, how can you call yourself a security professional? You don’t understand what the business does. You’ll never be a security professional.” These kinds of things, I think, are the natural growing pains of this and any industry.

What will probably happen going forward is that as things become increasingly interconnected and peoples’ whole lives more and more online, you will have more and more of a visibility of security. Additionally, we will see the need to extend the capabilities outside of the enterprise into the consumer space. We are already seeing an overlap between personal and corporate devices. So I think that everything will kind of bleed into everything else: some areas will become operationalised, others will be commoditised, but I think that there will continuously be a need for security that will always have to be there. What that will look like will probably be different to what we see today.

What kind of challenges do you think will the companies face in the future in terms of security?

One of the biggest challenges that companies are facing is securing at the same rate of innovation. Every company wants to be the first one to develop a new way that they can hook in with their customers. Whether this is in the form of being the first in developing a new app that can enable consumers to do banking, or to do payments and inter-payments, and so on, which sometimes comes at the cost of security. Balancing this business case between the perceived benefits and the security risks of it can be very challenging. The speed at which businesses want to and need to innovate, because that’s what the market is forcing them to do, is making security cost-prohibitive.

The other challenge is that the business model for many companies lies almost exclusively in advertising revenue. Nearly every mobile app or social media site or other online service that is free is typically generating either their primary or supplementary revenue by selling user information. With so many companies trying to grab data and sell to the highest bidder – we have a big challenge in educating users in terms of what security risks lie as well as trying to enforce good security practises within the vendor space but without breaking business models.

How would you say companies should then approach this challenge in the first place?

The way that companies typically “solve” this challenge is by burying their head in the sand and outsourcing the problem. So they will go out to another company and ask them: “can you offer us a secure platform to do it?” To which they answer, “of course we can. Just give us your money.” The challenge is that companies and individuals don’t appreciate that poor security choices made today may have an impact that will not be immediately felt, but perhaps in a few months’ or years’ time. Sadly, by then, it’s usually too late. So this is what both companies and individuals need to be careful about.

Returning to the point about security professionals being very diverse, what’s the role of security professionals from the risk governance and compliance perspective? Can you elaborate more on the security culture within a company and how can it be developed?

Security culture is a very difficult thing: it is not impossible but it relies on understanding human behaviour more than technical aspects. Understanding human behaviour means understanding personality types and how they respond to different environments and stimuli, which can be more challenging that understanding technical aspects.

The general observation that I can make about human behaviour, regardless of the personality type, is that people don’t tend to be aware of what they are giving up. The best and most prevalent example would be how much in demand mobile apps are and how insecure they are, because people unknowingly give away lots of data in order to have access to them. Chris Eng from Veracode makes an excellent analogy by saying that “people usually don’t care what they are agreeing to as long as they can still fling birds against pigs.” This is the crux of it. People don’t think it makes much of a difference if they give their email address away, or if they let the app access their GPS data or their contacts, because they can’t perceive a direct impact.  The problem is that this impact might not be felt until ten years’ time. So if you are giving data to Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp, for example, you can’t really predict what will happen later on. In the last year Facebook acquired both Instagram and Whatsapp. So now you have a single company that holds all of your photo data that you maybe didn’t want on Facebook, along with all the stats on your behaviour that you’ve been feeding to Facebook, along with the people you are chatting to, and so on. So now Facebook has an incredible amount of information about you and can target and market a lot better. Someone could also use all this data for any purpose. I’m not saying that Facebook or other companies gather users personal data for malicious purposes, but it reminds me of the saying, “The path to hell is paved with good intentions.”

How can you make people change their behaviour?

You have to make it real and personal for them. You have to make that personal connection. In security we tend to say: “we have 50,000 phishing emails that come through every day, and people click on them.” But to the individual user, that doesn’t really have that much of an impact. Are we making this information personal? The communication methods and the techniques that we need to change behaviour are there, we don’t need to reinvent it with security people who don’t understand how communication necessarily works or who are not the best communicators to begin with.

We can remember how 15-20 years ago, nobody cared about recycling, because nobody really cared about the environment. It was just a few people in Greenpeace with long hair and who smelled a bit funny who were trying to stop the oil companies from drilling into the sea, for example. Now, you go into any office and you find 10 bins for every different type of recycling material, which everybody now uses. It’s been a long-term campaign which finally created that social change, and which now makes it unacceptable for people to behave in another way. As you walk on the street, you will see that very few people, if any, throw wrappers on the floor. They usually hold onto them until they get to a bin and then they dispose of them. We need to adopt the same practices to change behaviour in security and in many cases that means actually letting people who know how to market and communicate do that for us instead of trying to do it all ourselves.