Security Lessons From My Doctor

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

Adam Shostack, Leading expert in threat modeling

February 25, 2016

4 Min Read
By <a href="//" title="Lewis Hine">Lewis Hine</a> - <a rel="nofollow" class="external text" href="">Lewis Hine: Newsies smoking at Skeeter's Branch, St. Louis, 1910</a>, based on <a rel="nofollow" class="external text" href="">file from Library of Congress</a>, Public Domain,

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.

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About the Author(s)

Adam Shostack

Leading expert in threat modeling

Adam Shostack 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 advisor and mentor. While at Microsoft, he drove the Autorun fix into Windows Update, was the lead designer of the SDL Threat Modeling Tool v3 and created the "Elevation of Privilege" game. Adam is the author of Threat Modeling: Designing for Security, and the co-author of The New School of Information Security. His personal home page can be found here

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