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Science Fiction Writers Helping Imagine Future Threats

The French army is going to put together a team of science fiction writers to help imagine future threats.

Leaving aside the question of whether science fiction writers are better or worse at envisioning nonfictional futures, this isn’t new. The US Department of Homeland Security did the same thing over a decade ago, and I wrote about it back then:

A couple of years ago, the Department of Homeland Security hired a bunch of science fiction writers to come in for a day and think of ways terrorists could attack America. If our inability to prevent 9/11 marked a failure of imagination, as some said at the time, then who better than science fiction writers to inject a little imagination into counterterrorism planning?

I discounted the exercise at the time, calling it “embarrassing.” I never thought that 9/11 was a failure of imagination. I thought, and still think, that 9/11 was primarily a confluence of three things: the dual failure of centralized coordination and local control within the FBI, and some lucky breaks on the part of the attackers. More imagination leads to more movie-plot threats — which contributes to overall fear and overestimation of the risks. And that doesn’t help keep us safe at all.

Science fiction writers are creative, and creativity helps in any future scenario brainstorming. But please, keep the people who actually know science and technology in charge.

Last month, at the 2009 Homeland Security Science & Technology Stakeholders Conference in Washington D.C., science fiction writers helped the attendees think differently about security. This seems like a far better use of their talents than imagining some of the zillions of ways terrorists can attack America.

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Security and Human Behavior (SHB) 2019

Today is the second day of the twelfth Workshop on Security and Human Behavior, which I am hosting at Harvard University.

SHB is a small, annual, invitational workshop of people studying various aspects of the human side of security, organized each year by Alessandro Acquisti, Ross Anderson, and myself. The 50 or so people in the room include psychologists, economists, computer security researchers, sociologists, political scientists, criminologists, neuroscientists, designers, lawyers, philosophers, anthropologists, business school professors, and a smattering of others. It’s not just an interdisciplinary event; most of the people here are individually interdisciplinary.

The goal is to maximize discussion and interaction. We do that by putting everyone on panels, and limiting talks to 7-10 minutes. The rest of the time is left to open discussion. Four hour-and-a-half panels per day over two days equals eight panels; six people per panel means that 48 people get to speak. We also have lunches, dinners, and receptions — all designed so people from different disciplines talk to each other.

I invariably find this to be the most intellectually stimulating two days of my professional year. It influences my thinking in many different, and sometimes surprising, ways.

This year’s program is here. This page lists the participants and includes links to some of their work. As he does every year, Ross Anderson is liveblogging the talks — remotely, because he was denied a visa earlier this year.

Here are my posts on the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth, and eleventh SHB workshops. Follow those links to find summaries, papers, and occasionally audio recordings of the various workshops. Ross also maintains a good webpage of psychology and security resources.

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Programmers Who Don’t Understand Security Are Poor at Security

A university study confirmed the obvious: if you pay a random bunch of freelance programmers a small amount of money to write security software, they’re not going to do a very good job at it.

In an experiment that involved 43 programmers hired via the Freelancer.com platform, University of Bonn academics have discovered that developers tend to take the easy way out and write code that stores user passwords in an unsafe manner.

For their study, the German academics asked a group of 260 Java programmers to write a user registration system for a fake social network.

Of the 260 developers, only 43 took up the job, which involved using technologies such as Java, JSF, Hibernate, and PostgreSQL to create the user registration component.

Of the 43, academics paid half of the group with €100, and the other half with €200, to determine if higher pay made a difference in the implementation of password security features.

Further, they divided the developer group a second time, prompting half of the developers to store passwords in a secure manner, and leaving the other half to store passwords in their preferred method — hence forming four quarters of developers paid €100 and prompted to use a secure password storage method (P100), developers paid €200 and prompted to use a secure password storage method (P200), devs paid €100 but not prompted for password security (N100), and those paid €200 but not prompted for password security (N200).

I don’t know why anyone would expect this group of people to implement a good secure password system. I’m sure they grabbed the first thing they found on GitHub that did the job.

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Measuring the Rationality of Security Decisions

Interesting research: “Dancing Pigs or Externalities? Measuring the Rationality of
Security Decisions
“:

Abstract: Accurately modeling human decision-making in security is critical to thinking about when, why, and how to recommend that users adopt certain secure behaviors. In this work, we conduct behavioral economics experiments to model the rationality of end-user security decision-making in a realistic online experimental system simulating a bank account. We ask participants to make a financially impactful security choice, in the face of transparent risks of account compromise and benefits offered by an optional security behavior (two-factor authentication). We measure the cost and utility of adopting the security behavior via measurements of time spent executing the behavior and estimates of the participant’s wage. We find that more than 50% of our participants made rational (e.g., utility optimal) decisions, and we find that participants are more likely to behave rationally in the face of higher risk. Additionally, we find that users’ decisions can be modeled well as a function of past behavior (anchoring effects), knowledge of costs, and to a lesser extent, users’ awareness of risks and context (R2=0.61). We also find evidence of endowment effects, as seen in other areas of economic and psychological decision-science literature, in our digital-security setting. Finally, using our data, we show theoretically that a “one-size-fits-all” emphasis on security can lead to market losses, but that adoption by a subset of users with higher risks or lower costs can lead to market gains

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Conservation of Threat

Here’s some interesting research about how we perceive threats. Basically, as the environment becomes safer we basically manufacture new threats. From an essay about the research:

To study how concepts change when they become less common, we brought volunteers into our laboratory and gave them a simple task ­– to look at a series of computer-generated faces and decide which ones seem “threatening.” The faces had been carefully designed by researchers to range from very intimidating to very harmless.

As we showed people fewer and fewer threatening faces over time, we found that they expanded their definition of “threatening” to include a wider range of faces. In other words, when they ran out of threatening faces to find, they started calling faces threatening that they used to call harmless. Rather than being a consistent category, what people considered “threats” depended on how many threats they had seen lately.

This has a lot of implications in security systems where humans have to make judgments about threat and risk: TSA agents, police noticing “suspicious” activities, “see something say something” campaigns, and so on.

The academic paper.

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Security and Human Behavior (SHB 2018)

I’m at Carnegie Mellon University, at the eleventh Workshop on Security and Human Behavior.

SHB is a small invitational gathering of people studying various aspects of the human side of security, organized each year by Alessandro Acquisti, Ross Anderson, and myself. The 50 or so people in the room include psychologists, economists, computer security researchers, sociologists, political scientists, neuroscientists, designers, lawyers, philosophers, anthropologists, business school professors, and a smattering of others. It’s not just an interdisciplinary event; most of the people here are individually interdisciplinary.

The goal is to maximize discussion and interaction. We do that by putting everyone on panels, and limiting talks to 7-10 minutes. The rest of the time is left to open discussion. Four hour-and-a-half panels per day over two days equals eight panels; six people per panel means that 48 people get to speak. We also have lunches, dinners, and receptions — all designed so people from different disciplines talk to each other.

I invariably find this to be the most intellectually stimulating conference of my year. It influences my thinking in many different, and sometimes surprising, ways.

This year’s program is here. This page lists the participants and includes links to some of their work. As he does every year, Ross Anderson is liveblogging the talks. (Ross also maintains a good webpage of psychology and security resources.)

Here are my posts on the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth SHB workshops. Follow those links to find summaries, papers, and occasionally audio recordings of the various workshops.

Next year, I’ll be hosting the event at Harvard.

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The Science of Interrogation

Fascinating article about two psychologists who are studying interrogation techniques.

Now, two British researchers are quietly revolutionising the study and practice of interrogation. Earlier this year, in a meeting room at the University of Liverpool, I watched a video of the Diola interview alongside Laurence Alison, the university’s chair of forensic psychology, and Emily Alison, a professional counsellor. My permission to view the tape was negotiated with the counter-terrorist police, who are understandably wary of allowing outsiders access to such material. Details of the interview have been changed to protect the identity of the officers involved, though the quotes are verbatim.

The Alisons, husband and wife, have done something no scholars of interrogation have been able to do before. Working in close cooperation with the police, who allowed them access to more than 1,000 hours of tapes, they have observed and analysed hundreds of real-world interviews with terrorists suspected of serious crimes. No researcher in the world has ever laid hands on such a haul of data before. Based on this research, they have constructed the world’s first empirically grounded and comprehensive model of interrogation tactics.

The Alisons’ findings are changing the way law enforcement and security agencies approach the delicate and vital task of gathering human intelligence. “I get very little, if any, pushback from practitioners when I present the Alisons’ work,” said Kleinman, who now teaches interrogation tactics to military and police officers. “Even those who don’t have a clue about the scientific method, it just resonates with them.” The Alisons have done more than strengthen the hand of advocates of non-coercive interviewing: they have provided an unprecedentedly authoritative account of what works and what does not, rooted in a profound understanding of human relations. That they have been able to do so is testament to a joint preoccupation with police interviews that stretches back more than 20 years.

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Research on What Motivates ISIS — and Other — Fighters

Interesting research from Nature Human Behaviour: “The devoted actor’s will to fight and the spiritual dimension of human conflict“:

Abstract: Frontline investigations with fighters against the Islamic State (ISIL or ISIS), combined with multiple online studies, address willingness to fight and die in intergroup conflict. The general focus is on non-utilitarian aspects of human conflict, which combatants themselves deem ‘sacred’ or ‘spiritual’, whether secular or religious. Here we investigate two key components of a theoretical framework we call ‘the devoted actor’ — sacred values and identity fusion with a group­ — to better understand people’s willingness to make costly sacrifices. We reveal three crucial factors: commitment to non-negotiable sacred values and the groups that the actors are wholly fused with; readiness to forsake kin for those values; and perceived spiritual strength of ingroup versus foes as more important than relative material strength. We directly relate expressed willingness for action to behaviour as a check on claims that decisions in extreme conflicts are driven by cost-benefit calculations, which may help to inform policy decisions for the common defense.

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