The Psychology of Security
We make security trade-offs, large and small, every day. We make them when we decide to lock our doors in the morning, when we choose our driving route, and when we decide whether we’re going to pay for something via check, credit card, or cash. They’re often not the only factor in a decision, but they’re a contributing factor. And most of the time, we don’t even realize, it. We make security trade-offs intuitively. Most decisions are default decisions, and there have been many popular books that explore reaction, intuition, choice, and decision.
These intuitive choices are central to life on this planet. Every living thing makes security trade-offs, mostly as a species—evolving this way instead of that way—but also as individuals. Imagine a rabbit sitting in a field, eating clover. Suddenly, he spies a fox. He’s going to make a security trade-off: should I stay or should I flee? The rabbits that are good at making these trade-offs are going to live to reproduce, while the rabbits that are bad at it are going to get eaten or starve. This means that, as a successful species on the planet, humans should be really good at making security trade-offs.
And yet at the same time we seem hopelessly bad at it. We get it wrong all the time. We exaggerate some risks while minimizing others. We exaggerate some costs while minimizing others. Even simple trade-offs we get wrong, wrong, wrong—again and again. A Vulcan studying human security behavior would shake his head in amazement.
The truth is that we’re not hopelessly bad at making security trade-offs. We are very well adapted to dealing with the security environment endemic to hominids living in small family groups on the highland plains of East Africa. It’s just that the environment in New York in 2006 is different from Kenya circa 100,000 BC. And so our feeling of security diverges from the reality of security, and we get things wrong.
The essay examines particular brain heuristics, how they work and how they fail, in an attempt to explain why our feeling of security so often diverges from reality. I’m giving a talk on the topic at the RSA Conference today at 3:00 PM. Dark Reading posted an article on this, also discussed on Slashdot. CSO Online also has a podcast interview with me on the topic. I expect there’ll be more press coverage this week.
The essay is really still in draft, and I would very much appreciate any and all comments, criticisms, additions, corrections, suggestions for further research, and so on. I think security technology has a lot to learn from psychology, and that I’ve only scratched the surface of the interesting and relevant research—and what it means.