Behavioural science in cyber security

Why your staff ignore security policies and what to do about it.               

Dale Carnegie’s 1936 bestselling self-help book How To Win Friends And Influence People is one of those titles that sits unloved and unread on most people’s bookshelves. But dust off its cover and crack open its spine, and you’ll find lessons and anecdotes that are relevant to the challenges associated with shaping people’s behaviour when it comes to cyber security.

In one chapter, Carnegie tells the story of George B. Johnson, from Oklahoma, who worked for a local engineering company. Johnson’s role required him to ensure that other employees abide by the organisation’s health and safety policies. Among other things, he was responsible for making sure other employees wore their hard hats when working on the factory floor.

His strategy was as follows: if he spotted someone not following the company’s policy, he would approach them, admonish them, quote the regulation at them, and insist on compliance. And it worked — albeit briefly. The employee would put on their hard hat, and as soon as Johnson left the room, they would just as quickly remove it.  So he tried something different: empathy. Rather than addressing them from a position of authority, Johnson spoke to his colleagues almost as though he was their friend, and expressed a genuine interest in their comfort. He wanted to know if the hats were uncomfortable to wear, and that’s why they didn’t wear them when on the job.

Instead of simply reciting the rules as chapter-and-verse, he merely mentioned it was in the best interest of the employee to wear their helmets, because they were designed to prevent workplace injuries.

This shift in approach bore fruit, and workers felt more inclined to comply with the rules. Moreover, Johnson observed that employees were less resentful of management.

The parallels between cyber security and George B. Johnson’s battle to ensure health-and-safety compliance are immediately obvious. Our jobs require us to adequately address the security risks that threaten the organisations we work for. To be successful at this, it’s important to ensure that everyone appreciates the value of security — not just engineers, developers, security specialists, and other related roles.

This isn’t easy. On one hand, failing to implement security controls can result in an organisation facing significant losses. However, badly-implemented security mechanisms can be worse: either by obstructing employee productivity or by fostering a culture where security is resented.

To ensure widespread adoption of secure behaviour, security policy and control implementations not only have to accommodate the needs of those that use them, but they also must be economically attractive to the organisation. To realise this, there are three factors we need to consider: motivation, design, and culture.

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Sharing views on security culture

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I’ve been invited to talk about human aspects of security at the CyberSecurity Talks & Networking event.  The venue and the format allowed the audience to participate and ask questions and we had insightful discussions at the end of my talk. It’s always interesting to hear what challenges people face in various organisations and how a few simple improvements can change the security culture for the better.


Presenting at SANS European Security Awareness Summit

It’s been a pleasure delivering a talk on the psychology of information security culture at the SANS European Security Awareness Summit 2016. It was the first time for me to attend and present at this event, I certainly hope it’s not going to be the last.

The summit has a great community feel to it and Lance Spitzner did a great job organising and bringing people together. It was an opportunity for me not only to share my knowledge, but also to learn from others during a number of interactive sessions and workshops. The participants were keen to share tips and tricks to improve security awareness in their companies, as well as sharing war stories of what worked and what didn’t.

It was humbling to find out that my book was quite popular in this community and I even managed to sign a couple of copies.

All speakers’ presentation slides (including from past and future events) can be accessed here.


How to Create a Security Culture at the Workplace

October is National Cyber Security Awareness Month(NCSAM) which is designed to engage and educate public and private sector partners through events and initiatives to raise awareness about cybersecurity,

I’ve been asked to share my views on creating a security culture at the workplace with The State of Security.

I believe the goal is not to teach tricks, but to create a new culture which is accepted and understood by everyone. In order to effectively do so, messages need to be designed and delivered according to each type of employee: there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all security campaign. Questions that must always be answered include: What are the benefits? What does it matter or why should I care? What impact do my actions have?

Security campaigns must discard scare tactics such as threatening employees with sanctions for breaches. Campaigns should be oriented towards the users’ goals and values, as well as the values of the organisation, such as professionalism and delivery.

A security campaign should emphasise that employees can cause serious damage to an organisation when they engage in non-compliant behaviour, even if it appears to be in an insignificant way. They should understand that they are bearing some responsibility for the security of the organisation and its exposure to risk.

Furthermore, the entire organisation needs to perceive security as bringing value to the company, as opposed to being an obstacle preventing employees from doing their job. It is important for employees to understand that they contribute to the smooth and efficient operation of business processes when they follow recommended security practices, just as security enables the availability of resources that support these processes.


The Psychology of Information Security Culture

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In order to reduce security risks within an enterprise, security professionals have traditionally attempted to guide employees towards compliance through security training. However, recurring problems and employee behaviour in this arena indicate that these measures are insufficient and rather ineffective.

Security training tends to focus on specific working practices and defined threat scenarios, leaving the understanding of security culture and its specific principles of behaviour untouched. A security culture should be regarded as a fundamental matter to address. If neglected, employees will not develop habitually secure behaviour or take the initiative to make better decisions when problems arise.

In my talk I will focus on how you can improve security culture in your organisation. I’ll discuss how you can:

  • Understand the root causes of a poor security culture within the workplace
  • Aligning a security programme with wider organisational objectives
  • Manage and communicate these changes within an organisation

The goal is not to teach tricks, but to create a new culture which is accepted and understood by everyone. Come join us at the Security Awareness Summit on 11 Nov for an amazing opportunity to learn from and share with each other. Activities include show-n-tell, 306 Lightening Talks, video wars, group case studies and numerous networking activities. Learn more and register now for the Summit.

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The Psychology of Information Security book reviews

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I wrote about my book  in the previous post. Here I would like to share what others have to say about it.

So often information security is viewed as a technical discipline – a world of firewalls, anti-virus software, access controls and encryption. An opaque and enigmatic discipline which defies understanding, with a priesthood who often protect their profession with complex concepts, language and most of all secrecy.

Leron takes a practical, pragmatic and no-holds barred approach to demystifying the topic. He reminds us that ultimately security depends on people – and that we all act in what we see as our rational self-interest – sometimes ill-informed, ill-judged, even downright perverse.

No approach to security can ever succeed without considering people – and as a profession we need to look beyond our computers to understand the business, the culture of the organisation – and most of all, how we can create a security environment which helps people feel free to actually do their job.
David Ferbrache OBE, FBCS
Technical Director, Cyber Security
KPMG UK

This is an easy-to-read, accessible and simple introduction to information security.  The style is straightforward, and calls on a range of anecdotes to help the reader through what is often a complicated and hard to penetrate subject.  Leron approaches the subject from a psychological angle and will be appealing to both those of a non-technical and a technical background.
Dr David King
Visiting Fellow of Kellogg College
University of Oxford

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Digital decisions: Understanding behaviours for safer cyber environments

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I was invited to participate in a panel discussion at a workshop on digital decision-making and risk-taking hosted by the Decision, Attitude, Risk & Thinking (DART) research group at Kingston Business School.

During the workshop, we addressed the human dimension in issues arising from increasing digital interconnectedness with a particular focus on cyber security risks and cyber safety in web-connected organisations.

We identified behavioural challenges in cyber security such as insider threats, phishing emails, security culture and achieving stakeholder buy-in. We also outlined a potential further research opportunity which could tackle behavioural security risks inherent in the management of organisational information assets.

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