On Security Awareness Training

The focus on training obscures the failures of security design

By Bruce Schneier
Dark Reading
March 19, 2013

Should companies spend money on security awareness training for their employees? It's a contentious topic, with respected experts on both sides of the debate. I personally believe that training users in security is generally a waste of time, and that the money can be spent better elsewhere. Moreover, I believe that our industry's focus on training serves to obscure greater failings in security design.

In order to understand my argument, it's useful to look at training's successes and failures. One area where it doesn't work very well is health. We are forever trying to train people to have healthier lifestyles: eat better, exercise more, whatever. And people are forever ignoring the lessons. One basic reason is psychological: we just aren't very good at trading off immediate gratification for long-term benefit. A healthier you is an abstract eventually; sitting in front of the television all afternoon with a McDonald's Super Monster Meal sounds really good right now. Similarly, computer security is an abstract benefit that gets in the way of enjoying the Internet. Good practices might protect me from a theoretical attack at some time in the future, but they're a lot of bother right now and I have more fun things to think about. This is the same trick Facebook uses to get people to give away their privacy; no one reads through new privacy policies; it's much easier to just click "OK" and start chatting with your friends. In short: security is never salient.

Another reason health training works poorly is that it's hard to link behaviors with benefits. We can train anyone -- even laboratory rats -- with a simple reward mechanism: push the button, get a food pellet. But with health, the connection is more abstract. If you're unhealthy, what caused it? It might have been something you did or didn't do years ago, it might have been one of the dozen things you have been doing and not doing for months, or it might have been the genes you were born with. Computer security is a lot like this, too.

Training laypeople in pharmacology also isn't very effective. We expect people to make all sorts of medical decisions at the drugstore, and they're not very good at it. Turns out that it's hard to teach expertise. We can't expect every mother to have the knowledge of a doctor or pharmacist or RN, and we certainly can't expect her to become an expert when most of the advice she's exposed to comes from manufacturers' advertising. In computer security, too, a lot of advice comes from companies with products and services to sell.

One area of health that is a training success is HIV prevention. HIV may be very complicated, but the rules for preventing it are pretty simple. And aside from certain sub-Saharan countries, we have taught people a new model of their health, and have dramatically changed their behavior. This is important: most lay medical expertise stems from folk models of health. Similarly, people have folk models of computer security. Maybe they're right and maybe they're wrong, but they're how people organize their thinking. This points to a possible way that computer security training can succeed. We should stop trying to teach expertise, and pick a few simple metaphors of security and train people to make decisions using those metaphors.

On the other hand, we still have trouble teaching people to wash their hands -- even though it's easy, fairly effective, and simple to explain. Notice the difference, though. The risks of catching HIV are huge, and the cause of the security failure is obvious. The risks of not washing your hands are low, and it's not easy to tie the resultant disease to a particular not-washing decision. Computer security is more like hand washing than HIV.

Another area where training works is driving. We trained, either through formal courses or one-on-one tutoring, and passed a government test, to be allowed to drive a car. One reason that works is because driving is a near-term, really cool, obtainable goal. Another reason is even though the technology of driving has changed dramatically over the past century, that complexity has been largely hidden behind a fairly static interface. You might have learned to drive thirty years ago, but that knowledge is still relevant today. On the other hand, password advice from ten years ago isn't relevant today. Can I bank from my browser? Are PDFs safe? Are untrusted networks okay? Is JavaScript good or bad? Are my photos more secure in the cloud or on my own hard drive? The 'interface' we use to interact with computers and the Internet changes all the time, along with best practices for computer security. This makes training a lot harder.

Food safety is my final example. We have a bunch of simple rules -- cooking temperatures for meat, expiration dates on refrigerated goods, the three-second rule for food being dropped on the floor -- that are mostly right, but often ignored. If we can't get people to follow these rules, what hope do we have for computer security training?

To those who think that training users in security is a good idea, I want to ask: "Have you ever met an actual user?" They're not experts, and we can't expect them to become experts. The threats change constantly, the likelihood of failure is low, and there is enough complexity that it's hard for people to understand how to connect their behavior to eventual outcomes. So they turn to folk remedies that, while simple, don't really address the threats.

Even if we could invent an effective computer security training program, there's one last problem. HIV prevention training works because affecting what the average person does is valuable. Even if only half the population practices safe sex, those actions dramatically reduce the spread of HIV. But computer security is often only as strong as the weakest link. If four-fifths of company employees learn to choose better passwords, or not to click on dodgy links, one-fifth still get it wrong and the bad guys still get in. As long as we build systems that are vulnerable to the worst case, raising the average case won't make them more secure.

The whole concept of security awareness training demonstrates how the computer industry has failed. We should be designing systems that won't let users choose lousy passwords and don't care what links a user clicks on. We should be designing systems that conform to their folk beliefs of security, rather than forcing them to learn new ones. Microsoft has a great rule about system messages that require the user to make a decision. They should be NEAT: necessary, explained, actionable, and tested. That's how we should be designing security interfaces. And we should be spending money on security training for developers. These are people who can be taught expertise in a fast-changing environment, and this is a situation where raising the average behavior increases the security of the overall system.

If we security engineers do our job right, users will get their awareness training informally and organically, from their colleagues and friends. People will learn the correct folk models of security, and be able to make decisions using them. Then maybe an organization can spend an hour a year reminding their employees what good security means at that organization, both on the computer and off. That makes a whole lot more sense.

earlier essay: The Internet Is a Surveillance State
later essay: IT for Oppression
categories: Computer and Information Security, Psychology of Security
back to Essays and Op Eds

Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.

Schneier on Security is a personal website. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Co3 Systems, Inc..