Dark Reading is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them.Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Careers & People

10:30 AM
Adam Shostack
Adam Shostack
Connect Directly
E-Mail vvv

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? 

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 leading expert on threat modeling. He's a member of the BlackHat Review Board, and helped create the CVE and many other things. He currently helps many organizations improve their security via Shostack & Associates, and helps startups become great businesses as an ... View Full Bio

Recommended Reading:

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Oldest First  |  Newest First  |  Threaded View
<<   <   Page 2 / 2
Joe Stanganelli
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
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.
<<   <   Page 2 / 2
Overcoming the Challenge of Shorter Certificate Lifespans
Mike Cooper, Founder & CEO of Revocent,  10/15/2020
7 Tips for Choosing Security Metrics That Matter
Ericka Chickowski, Contributing Writer,  10/19/2020
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Current Issue
Special Report: Computing's New Normal
This special report examines how IT security organizations have adapted to the "new normal" of computing and what the long-term effects will be. Read it and get a unique set of perspectives on issues ranging from new threats & vulnerabilities as a result of remote working to how enterprise security strategy will be affected long term.
Flash Poll
How IT Security Organizations are Attacking the Cybersecurity Problem
How IT Security Organizations are Attacking the Cybersecurity Problem
The COVID-19 pandemic turned the world -- and enterprise computing -- on end. Here's a look at how cybersecurity teams are retrenching their defense strategies, rebuilding their teams, and selecting new technologies to stop the oncoming rise of online attacks.
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
PUBLISHED: 2020-10-21
BigBlueButton through 2.2.8 uses Ghostscript for processing of uploaded EPS documents, and consequently may be subject to attacks related to a &quot;schwache Sandbox.&quot;
PUBLISHED: 2020-10-21
BigBlueButton before 2.2.8 (or earlier) does not set the secure flag for the session cookie in an https session, which makes it easier for remote attackers to capture this cookie by intercepting its transmission within an http session.
PUBLISHED: 2020-10-21
In BigBlueButton before 2.2.8 (or earlier), the client-side Mute button only signifies that the server should stop accepting audio data from the client. It does not directly configure the client to stop sending audio data to the server, and thus a modified server could store the audio data and/or tr...
PUBLISHED: 2020-10-21
In BigBlueButton before 2.2.8 (or earlier), uploaded presentations are sent to clients without a Content-Type header, which allows XSS, as demonstrated by a .png file extension for an HTML document.
PUBLISHED: 2020-10-21
BigBlueButton through 2.2.8 records a video meeting despite the deactivation of video recording in the user interface. This may result in data storage beyond what is authorized for a specific meeting topic or participant.