Imagine yourself at a street corner with your preschool-aged child. Knowing that we all want our children to be able to cross the street on their own someday, what do you say to help educate and prepare them? We want to explain it thoroughly, so that they can move safely through the world, right?
How about: “Hey honey, do you see that car? It weighs approximately two tons, and is traveling at a speed of 36 miles per hour. Given that the average human walking speed is about 3 miles per hour, and the braking time for a car that size traveling that speed…”
Well, okay, maybe that’s a bit too much for a toddler.
Or perhaps we should start with “Sweetheart, if you aren’t careful when you cross the street, you could be seriously injured or killed by cars. There were 347 pedestrians killed in traffic in California last year!”
While this is true, it’s liable to leave them feeling terrified, overwhelmed, and powerless.
There are ways to train - even the most novice individuals - to pilot their way competently through a high-risk and complex scenario without overloading or traumatizing them. With simple instructions like “look both ways before crossing,” most of us manage to exit childhood with a solid understanding of how to safely navigate an intersection.
Why can’t we do the same thing for something as broad and technically challenging as computer security? The solution is to start simple, then break down the message into more complex instructions:
Start with aspirational advice
“Stop, drop, and roll.” “Give a hoot – don’t pollute.” “Take a bite out of crime.” These slogans are intended to motivate people to change their behavior and to anchor actions to a simple, positive and memorable phrase. A group led by the National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA) and the APWG has been creating a list of slogans intended to help people take control of their computer security, for instance: “Keep a clean machine,” “Share with care,” and “Lock down your login.”
Expand advice with tips
The crucial part of looking both ways before crossing is not so much the looking, but in pausing to observe hazards. So the next step in educating people is to give a little more information.
Tips should help clarify the slogans to explain succinctly what people should be doing to protect themselves. In the case of street crossing, this generally includes instructions about where it is safe to cross, looking and listening for hazards, and then finally crossing quickly and safely when the way is clear. In the case of computer safety advice, this should also include a list of actions they should take to identify and avoid hazards.
Using logins as an example, this should include tips for creating a strong password or passphrase, using unique passwords for each account, and enabling multi-factor authentication when possible. Here’s a list of resources for other online security topics.
Finally, specific technical steps
It’s natural that people will have questions about specific situations that you may want to answer proactively, or there may be certain caveats or nuances that need clarification. After introducing the advice and then clarifying it briefly, you can provide more detailed technical information for those who want or need it.
In the case of logins, for example, you might want to explain that there may be additional hazards like shoulder-surfing and phishing where you need to be more cautious about inputting your credentials. Or, you may want to give more clarification about how to enable multi-factor authentication, or what to expect when it’s in place.
The world is not short of scary stories about the dangers lurking online, and this is leading people to feel like there is little they can do to mitigate risk. People are eager for common-sense cybersecurity advice that gives them control and helps keep them stay safer online. No one expects that we can completely eliminate accidents or online crime overnight, but we can all sleep a little easier if we know that we’re doing our best to observe and control our environment.