Second SHB Workshop Liveblogging (4)

Session three was titled “Usability.” (For the record, the Stata Center is one ugly building.)

Andrew Patrick, NRC Canada until he was laid off four days ago (suggested reading: Fingerprint Concerns: Performance, Usability, and Acceptance of Fingerprint Biometric Systems), talked about biometric systems and human behavior. Biometrics are used everywhere: for gym membership, at Disneyworld, at international borders. The government of Canada is evaluating using iris recognition at a distance for events like the 2010 Olympics. There are two different usability issues: with respect to the end user, and with respect to the authenticator. People’s acceptance of biometrics is very much dependent on the context. And of course, biometrics are not secret. Patrick suggested that to defend ourselves against this proliferation of using biometrics for authentication, the individual should publish them. The rationale is that we’re publishing them anyway, so we might as well do it knowingly.

Luke Church, Cambridge University (suggested reading: SHB Position Paper; Usability and the Common Criteria), talked about what he called “user-centered design.” There’s a economy of usability: “in order to make some things easier, we have to make some things harder” — so it makes sense to make the commonly done things easier at the expense of the rarely done things. This has a lot of parallels with security. The result is “appliancisation” (with a prize for anyone who come up with a better name): the culmination of security behaviors and what the system can do embedded in a series of user choices. Basically, giving users meaningful control over their security. Luke discussed several benefits and problems with the approach.

Diana Smetters, Palo Alto Research Center (suggested reading: Breaking out of the browser to defend against phishing attacks; Building secure mashups; Ad-hoc guesting: when exceptions are the rule), started with these premises: you can teach users, but you can’t teach them very much, so you’d better carefully design systems so that you 1) minimize what they have to learn, 2) make it easier for them to learn it, and 3) maximize the benefit from what they learn. Too often, security is at odds with getting the job done. “As long as configuration errors (false alarms) are common, any technology that requires users to observe security indicators and react to them will fail as attacks can simply masquerade as errors, and users will rationally ignore them.” She recommends meeting the user halfway by building new security models that actually fit the users’ needs. (For example: Phishing is a mismatch problem, between what’s in the user’s head and where the URL is actually going. SSL doesn’t work, but how should websites authenticate themselves to users? Her solution is protected links: a set of secure bookmarks in protected browsers. She went on to describe a prototype and tests run with user subjects.

Jon Callas, PGP Corporation (suggested reading: Improving Message Security with a Self-Assembling PKI), used the metaphor of the “security cliff”: you have to keep climbing until you get to the top and that’s hard, so it’s easier to just stay at the bottom. He wants more of a “security ramp,” so people can reasonably stop somewhere in the middle. His idea is to have a few policies — e-mail encryption, rules about USB drives — and enforce them. This works well in organizations, where IT has dictatorial control over user configuration. If we can’t teach users much, we need to enforce policies on users.

Rob Reeder, Microsoft (suggested reading: Expanding Grids for Visualizing and Authoring Computer Security Policies), presented a possible solution to the secret questions problem: social authentication. The idea is to use people you know (trustees) to authenticate who you are, and have them attest to the fact that you lost your password. He went on to describe how the protocol works, as well as several potential attacks against the protocol and defenses, and experiments that tested the protocol. In the question session he talked about people designating themselves as trustees, and how that isn’t really a problem.

Lorrie Cranor, Carnegie Mellon University (suggested reading: A Framework for Reasoning about the Human in the Loop; Timing Is Everything? The Effects of Timing and Placement of Online Privacy Indicators; School of Phish: A Real-Word Evaluation of Anti-Phishing Training; You’ve Been Warned: An Empirical Study of the Effectiveness of Web Browser Phishing Warnings), talked about security warnings. The best option is to fix the hazard; the second best is to guard against it — but far too often we just warn people about it. But since hazards are generally not very hazardous, most people just ignore them. “Often, software asks the user and provides little or no information to help user make this decision.” Better is to use some sort of automated analysis to assist the user in responding to warnings. For websites, for example, the system should block sites with a high probability of danger, not bother users if there is a low probably of danger, and help the user make the decision in the grey area. She went on to describe a prototype and user studies done with the prototype; her paper will be presented at USENIX Security in August.

Much of the discussion centered on how bad the problem really is, and how much security is good enough. The group also talked about economic incentives companies have to either fix or ignore security problems, and whether market approaches (or, as Jean Camp called it, “the happy Libertarian market pony”) are sufficient. Some companies have incentives to convince users to do the wrong thing, or at the very least to do nothing. For example, social networking sites are more valuable if people share their information widely.

Further discussion was about whitelisting, and whether it worked or not. There’s the problem of the bad guys getting on the whitelist, and the risk that organizations like the RIAA will use the whitelist to enforce copyright, or that large banks will use the whitelist as a tool to block smaller start-up banks. Another problem is that the user might not understand what a whitelist signifies.

Dave Clark from the audience: “It’s not hard to put a seat belt on, and if you need a lesson, take a plane.”

Kind of a one-note session. We definitely need to invite more psych people.

Adam Shostack’s liveblogging is here. Ross Anderson’s liveblogging is in his blog post’s comments. Matt Blaze’s audio is here.

Posted on June 11, 2009 at 2:56 PM5 Comments


Carlo Graziani June 11, 2009 7:26 PM

I know what you mean about the Stata building. It appears to be a proof-of-concept for a new principle of earthquake-zone architecture: instead of designing the building to be earthquake-proof, design it so that if it collapses in an earthquake nobody will notice the difference.

This is what happens when MIT tries to be pretty.

bob June 12, 2009 12:44 PM

With respect to people clicking on phishing links which were sent in response to their online purchases, I suspect some bias has been inserted by the fact they a) they were spending “someone else’s money” (albeit via their own credit cards) and b) the false authority provided by the presence of the observer [similar to the difference in behaviors in the infamous Milgram experiment and how the behaviors changed as the distance between the subject and the researchers was changed]

Werner June 12, 2009 8:53 PM

That would one for Bruce Schneier Facts: the Stata Center is what happens when a building experiences Bruce’s wrath.

  • Werner

Petréa Mitchell June 15, 2009 9:34 AM

I would think it’s what happens when your architectural blueprints experience his electronic wrath.

“Yes, we’re absolutely certain that revision came from Mr. Gehry himself…”

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.