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2/25/2016
10:30 AM
Adam Shostack
Adam Shostack
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Security Lessons From My Doctor

Why it's hard to change risky habits like weak passwords and heavy smoking, even when advice is clear.

I went to the doctor recently, and he told me to eat more veggies and get some exercise.  There’s reasonably solid evidence that dietary patterns and exercise are correlated to longer life. (The notoriously argumentative security community probably wants to comment that a higher percentage of centenarians may relate to genes as well as lifestyle.) However, these things are linked to living longer, which is a goal so many of us share but few Americans act on. Why is that? 

By Lewis Hine - Lewis Hine: Newsies smoking at Skeeter's Branch, St. Louis, 1910, based on file from Library of Congress, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11158385
By Lewis Hine - Lewis Hine: Newsies smoking at Skeeter's Branch, St. Louis, 1910, based on file from Library of Congress, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11158385

After a nice roast beef sandwich for lunch, I’ll come back to this essay and explain that many Americans enjoy meat, and are used to sandwiches for lunch. What to change seems hard.  Some people hate olives, or love bacon.  Changing to a new habit seems hard, as does simply being disciplined about what you eat.  Diet advice seems to come and go and contradict itself all the time.  It’s easier to argue that it won’t work than to switch.

So what does all that have to do with security?

Every one of those sorts of objections (except the one about bacon) applies to every security change you want people to make in their lives, in their workflow, in their organization.

For example, it should be easy for you to use a password manager that creates unique passwords everywhere, protecting them from secret or undiscovered leaks of authentication data.  But choosing which password manager seems hard.

Do you choose 1Password or LastPass or PasswordVault or NSA’s PasswordG2 or JihadiPass?  You might look at reviews (which rarely look at security, but features) or ask a trusted advisor.  You might be worried about what happens if your computer crashes and dies, in which case you’d want a backup.  You might worry about another availability threat: how to get at your passwords while at work (or home). 

If you put passwords in the cloud, you expose them to confidentiality threats, which might be mitigated by encryption, if the folks doing the encryption didn’t mess it up. Which one will you use?  Will it work everywhere you need it to? All these security experts have told you not to write down passwords down! 

There’s contradictory advice about password managers, by the way, so I’ll lay out my position: Use something with local storage (not cloud) and inter-device sync. I use 1Password, because I think it’s better than the alternatives that I’ve looked at.

A big worry people express is, “Isn’t a password manager a big basket for all my eggs?” Yes it is, just like your desktop computer is.  Maybe an attacker wouldn’t get every last password, but they’d get most of them. (You might want to keep the password for all your Bitcoins in a safe.)

What’s happening with respect to password managers is resistance to change.  But it’s not resistance to change where the answer is clear, such as “if you want to live longer, do this.” It’s resistance where the answers are fuzzy, the payoff is unclear, and the effort seems high.  Also, it’s hard to know if using a password manager is like stopping smoking or if it’s more like adding wheat germ to your diet -- something that may or may not make a big difference.

In security, we rarely have such clarity. And so when people resist the changes we ask them to make, we need to remember not only the importance of clear communication like: “My advice is to use 1Password with local syncing to your phone not cloud sync.” But we should also avoid run on sentences with several subclauses and…  Oh, right, change is hard.

Even when the message is clear, like stop smoking, people have trouble following the advice. They have trouble making changes in their lives. They have trouble making changes in their organizations. And so when your clear security advice isn’t followed, try to understand the reasons that people are resisting the advice, and see what you can do to address those issues.

Related Content:

Security Lessons From My Car Mechanic

Next up: What I learned when my stockbroker called touting a new mutual fund.

Interop 2016 Las VegasFind out more about security threats and risk at Interop 2016, May 2-6, at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center, Las Vegas. Register today and receive an early bird discount of $200.

Adam is a consultant, entrepreneur, technologist, author and game designer. He's a member of the BlackHat Review Board and helped create the CVE and many other things. He currently helps organizations improve their security via Shostack & Associates, and advises startups ... View Full Bio
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Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Ninja
2/29/2016 | 7:00:30 PM
Re: PW mgrs.
Well, it's all risk management, let's not forget.  Security and accessibility are at constant odds at each other.  Sacrifice the one for the enhancement of the other.  The real issue is balancing both so that people are educated in terms of engaging in "best practices" -- or, at least, if they're going to ignore those best practices, that they do so knowing the consequences and the risks.

And a related best practice: Minimizing the data you 1) collect and 2) put out onto others' systems about yourself.
Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Ninja
2/28/2016 | 10:48:57 PM
Re: Change is difficult
Baby steps.  Start walking for 15 minutes every other day.  Build it into your habit over a few weeks.  Then increase the lengths of the walks or frequency.  Take steps to make vegetables more accessible.  Try vaping instead of smoking (it's how two family members and several friends of mine have quit!).  Is BIG change difficult?  Sure -- if you try to do it all at once.

But as the adage goes: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

So too with security habits in user behavior.
Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Ninja
2/28/2016 | 10:46:33 PM
Re: PW mgrs.
While we can all agree that putting your password on a sticky note on your monitor or in your top desk drawer is a terrible idea, many security experts have over the past few years reversed conventional wisdom and suggested that people DO write down their passwords -- on the condition that the password is lengthy, has a lot of entropy, and is otherwise nothing on the order of what a human would naturally select for him- or herself (i.e., the password is pseudorandom if not truly random) -- and then put the piece of paper somewhere truly secure, like your wallet.

Of course, even better -- should the piece of paper get compromised somehow anyway -- is to write down a hint that is meaningful to you but not meaningful to anyone else.

Doing this in a password manager is simply another approach to this thinking.
Dr.T
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Dr.T,
User Rank: Ninja
2/27/2016 | 6:54:48 PM
Re: PW mgrs.
Good question. I would suggest to anybody, if they could not manage putting a hint into a password manager they should not be online. Also agree, security is less of problem for many, they are concern on privacy.
Dr.T
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Dr.T,
User Rank: Ninja
2/27/2016 | 6:52:26 PM
Re: PW mgrs.
Agree. This is a good idea. Do not write your whole password anywhere. Or you can keep all those hints in your brain. 
Dr.T
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Dr.T,
User Rank: Ninja
2/27/2016 | 6:50:59 PM
Re: Thank you for educating your readers about the importance of online security
Agree. The change is difficult. Starting using a password manager would be a change too. Ultimate goal should be getting rid of whole username/password.
Dr.T
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Dr.T,
User Rank: Ninja
2/27/2016 | 6:48:42 PM
Re: Thank you for educating your readers about the importance of online security
1Password is good, some others are good too. But I suggest nobody should be using any password manager. If one could not manage a password they could not manage a password manager, they would put themselves in more risks.
Dr.T
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Dr.T,
User Rank: Ninja
2/27/2016 | 6:45:27 PM
Change is difficult
Agree with the article. We could not stop smoking or start eating more vegetables or going to 30 minutes' walk every day or having a complex password since all these things are changes in our life styles. And change is difficult.
adamshostack
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adamshostack,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/27/2016 | 5:39:32 PM
Re: PW mgrs.
Joe--that's an interesting approach.  Would you suggest it to someone who's busy or forgetful?

 

For many folks I've talked to, security is a side effect: the real win is it's easier to use.
Joe Stanganelli
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Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Ninja
2/27/2016 | 5:36:04 PM
PW mgrs.
I great piece of advice I got recently regarding password managers: Don't put your actual passwords in them; instead, put your hints in them.
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