“Even If Users Do Not Read Security Directives, Their Behavior Is Not So Catastrophic”
Communications of the ACM, January 2022, Vol. 65 No. 1, Pages 37-40
By Vashek Matyas, Kamil Malinka, Lydia Kraus, Lenka Knapova, Agata Kruzikova
“When we eventually started to analyze the obtained data after the third survey round, we discovered surprising results that led to heated discussions among the research team members.”
More than two decades ago, Adams and Sasse in their highly cited seminal work challenged the belief widely held—among IT security professionals—that users are the enemy within an organization—the one who does not care about security and subsequently behaves in a threatening way. While much effort has been undertaken by the research community since then to take the burden from end users and to make security systems more usable, it seems the situation in organizational security has not improved. According to a survey conducted by an online community for IT security professionals—a majority of these professionals still deems “users who are negligent or break the security policy” as “the top data breach risk.” Also, as Herley suggests, there can be rational reasons why users do not follow security advice, simply because the cost of following it can be higher than the benefits.
At Masaryk University (MU)—a Czech university with approximately 30,000 students—we wanted to find out more about the current state of affairs from the user perspective: Do users (still not) follow the security policy? At the same time, the fact that our university IT infrastructure management had the intention to redesign the (outdated) security directive, constituted an ideal opportunity for us to deeper investigate the topic.
A security directive (a.k.a. information security policy) is a high-level document that builds the basis for defining, communicating, and enforcing an organization’s information security strategy. It describes the principles a user must follow to support the protection of an organization’s assets (for example, technical infrastructure or knowledge). Some people believe (and we were of this belief too) that having a usable security directive is the cornerstone for motivating users to behave securely. Similarly, security decision makers have been repeatedly criticized when they ignored usability aspects in security directive design.
We tried to improve our security directive to motivate users to follow it. Yet our faith has been hit hard—as we describe in some detail here, but it was not a wasted effort at all. The data we obtained as a side effect shows a new perspective on this area.
About the Authors:
Vashek Matyas is a professor at Masaryk University in Brno, Czechia.
Kamil Malinka is an IT architect at Masaryk University in Brno, Czechia.
Lydia Kraus is a senior researcher at Masaryk University in Brno, Czechia.
Lenka Knapova is a Ph.D. candidate at Masaryk University in Brno, Czechia.
Agata Kruzikova is a Ph.D. candidate at Masaryk University in Brno, Czechia.