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NIST Study: User 'Security Fatigue' Adding to Online Risk

Decision-making overload with passwords, certificates, software updates frustrates users

Remembering passwords, creating a new account, downloading software updates, avoiding pop-ups, clicking here but not there…they're taking a toll on users, in the form of "security fatigue," according to a study released this week from the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

The nature of the fatigue is simply too much decision-making, according to NIST researchers, which prompts users to either plunge ahead carelessly or give up altogether. Regardless, it results in less individual security, not to mention the security of their data and the networks they're connected to.

"The majority of computer users felt overwhelmed and bombarded, and they got tired of being on constant alert, adopting safe behavior, and trying to understand the nuances of online security issues," NIST researchers report.

Consumers and business users face a number of "decision points" around passwords, like commands to update, and to use a specific nomenclature or syntax, NIST researchers say. Software updates for applications and operating systems are also decision points, as are certificate warnings and other pop-ups, according to Mary Theofanos, a NIST computer scientist involved in the research.

"This constant bombardment of decision points leaves users not knowing what to do," Theofanos says.

This user-based security fatigue tracks with a parallel sense of cyber fatigue and barrage among IT professionals. With so many real and artificial emergencies to deal with, they either tune out or shut down.

NIST conducted telephone interviews with 40 computer users recruited by an independent research firm. Ironically, the research team initially set out to look at home and business computer security, but a pervasive sense of user weariness emerged from the data.

In addition to fatigue, NIST researchers uncovered a belief among some users that they didn't have anything worth stealing, which also leads to a breakdown in practicing good security. "One user told us, 'If they want to steal my blueberry muffin recipe, they can go ahead'," says study co-author Brian Stanton, a cognitive scientist at the standards agency. That sort of attitude translates to users not being careful with what they do in email or in text messages, he adds.

NIST researchers offered a three-point prescription to ease security fatigue and encourage users to maintain better online habits:

  • Limit the number of security decisions users need to make.
  • Make it simple for users to choose the right security action.
  • Design for consistent decision-making whenever possible.

"You don't see good habits necessarily in security," Theofanos says.

She points to the book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Nobel-winning economist Daniel Kahneman. One of its points is that humans operate mostly on habits and that the brain tries not to make that many decisions, Theofanos explains. So brushing our teeth and how we drive become habitual behaviors without much decision-making involved.

One way to mitigate decision fatigue is by building in habitual behavior, she adds, by helping users to update passwords on a regular consistent basis, and by regular training and education.

(That sort of advice may be irksome to infosec professionals, whose experience often shows that, despite regular training, users forget or ignore an organization's security policies or tips about good online hygiene.)

NIST is interested in more research on user education, according to Stanton. "Most folks have no idea what these security terms are -- they don't what know what it is or what or how they should do it," he says. "Part of the education should consist of why it's in their best interests but also in the interests of the greater good that we all learn about better security."

Terry Sweeney is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor who has covered technology, networking, and security for more than 20 years. He was part of the team that started Dark Reading and has been a contributor to The Washington Post, Crain's New York Business, Red Herring, ... View Full Bio

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