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Security analogies: the key to educating laymen

Explaining tech concepts to the masses

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The answer boils down to language. We have to learn to speak to normal people about computers and security in a manner they can understand and that will inspire them to act in a responsible manner. This really hit home for me when I was reviewing a podcast to see if it would be suitable for my students. The podcast was number eight in the Security Now! series by Leo Laporte and Steve Gibson, and its subject was Denial of Service attacks. A few minutes in, this dialogue takes place:

Leo: Let's first explain what a simple denial of service attack is.

Steve: Well, the idea is, any kind of packet traffic which can cause problems for the receiving end can create what's called a "denial of service," you know, the term meaning, of course, that whatever service you are trying to get is being denied you by someone, for whatever reason, who wants that to happen. So, for example, in the old days, websites used to have their web servers brought down by people doing something called a "SYN flood," S-Y-N. A SYN packet is the first packet of a TCP connection. When a user's browser, for example, wants to connect to a web server, it'll send a SYN packet. The web server allocates some resources to get ready for this connection, sends back what's called a SYN/ACK packet, and then a final ACK packet is returned to the server. What that does is that verifies the communication path between these two endpoints, the user's browser and the server, and sort of establishes the communication.

As I listened to this, I thought, "There is no frickin' way my non-technical students are gonna understand a word he's saying! SYN? ACK? Packet? TCP? Forget it!" I abandoned the podcast and thought about how I always explained DoS to my students successfully in the past. And then it hit me: I used an analogy. The more I thought about how I successfully communicated ideas to my students, the more I tabulated the analogies that I used. I realised that analogies are key in educating your average computer user about security, just as they are the most effective way to explain to any of us a concept that comes from outside our field of study, or realm of expertise.

The centrality of analogy

Analogies are basic to how humans use language. Many of us got used to them from standardised tests in school, in which an analogy was presented with one key factor left out, which we then had to choose from five choices. For instance, this might be understood by the American football-loving computer guys out there:

Rex Grossman : Football :: Windows : ???

Analogies aren't just limited to tests taken with a number two lead pencil, however. Lots of branches of human understanding utilise analogies, from philosophy to physics, engineering to law, and literature to political science. Thomas Hobbes' famous Leviathan, a monumental work of political analysis from 1651, contained this illustration as its frontispiece:

Leviathan frontispiece

The image illustrates graphically Hobbes' point about the makeup of a well-governed society, in which it is composed of the mass of people together, each performing their function willingly and harmoniously. Hobbes himself perfectly annotates the drawing above in the following passage from the Introduction to the Leviathan:

For by art is created that great LEVIATHAN called a COMMONWEALTH, or STATE (in Latin, CIVITAS), which is but an artificial man, though of greater stature and strength than the natural, for whose protection and defence it was intended; and in which the sovereignty is an artificial soul, as giving life and motion to the whole body; the magistrates and other officers of judicature and execution, artificial joints; reward and punishment (by which fastened to the seat of the sovereignty, every joint and member is moved to perform his duty) are the nerves, that do the same in the body natural; the wealth and riches of all the particular members are the strength; salus populi (the people's safety) its business; counsellors, by whom all things needful for it to know are suggested unto it, are the memory; equity and laws, an artificial reason and will; concord, health; sedition, sickness; and civil war, death.

You may not agree with Hobbes (few today would, in fact), but you have to admit that the drawing of the Leviathan, coupled with Hobbes' words, make his idea crystal clear and easy to fathom. But it's not just in the areas of human study that analogies are used. The human mind seems almost hard-wired for analogies, using them to create and augment perception, problem solving, decision making, explanation, communication, and memory.

This last is especially interesting and resonant in the hands of the brilliant Argentine novelist Jorge Luis Borges (who I last wrote about in "A List of Security Essentials: From Mermaids to Suckling Pigs") and his amazing short story "Funes the Memorious" (which you can read online - go do it!).

In the story, a young man suffers an injury that prevents him from forgetting anything. This might sound cool to computer people, but it actually proves to be a kind of curse to Funes. Since he cannot forget anything, he cannot generalise, and generalisation is what allows us to function in the world. As my Psych professor, Dr.Green, explained it to our class, if every dog you saw was perceived as an entirely unique creature, how would you be able to generalise to even form the concept of "dog" in the first place? Borges explains this same concept in "Funes the Memorious", writing

He was...almost incapable of general, platonic ideas. It was not only difficult for him to understand that the generic term dog embraced so many unlike specimens of differing sizes and different forms; he was disturbed by the fact that a dog at three-fourteen (seen in profile) should have the same name as the dog at three-fifteen (seen from the front). His own face in the mirror, his own hands, surprised him on every occasion. Without effort, he had learned English, French, Portuguese, Latin. I suspect, nevertheless, that he was not very capable of thought. To think is to forget a difference, to generalise, to abstract.

Objections to analogies

Of course, not all analogies work, and many are annoying. If I ever hear "Life is like a box of chocolates... blah blah blah" again, I'll hunt down Tom Hanks and throttle him. And I know that many of you are already protesting that no analogy is perfect, which thereby invalidates the entire idea of analogies in the first place. Chandler Howell put this best when he said "Security is like an analogy. It only works up until the point that someone considers an angle or aspect that you haven't previously considered and accounted for."

Howell is correct. But a good analogy can still serve its purpose, and it can still enlighten people who hear it. Of course no analogy is perfect - but most listeners will grasp the essential similarities regardless. It's the experts, who know the subject of the analogy inside and out, who will see, and focus upon, the imperfections. But analogies aren't for experts; they're for normal folks who are trying to learn from the experts.

Experts also commonly bring up another objection to analogies: that users should learn the authentic concepts first, and analogies merely get in the way. The problem with that assertion, however, is that the vast majority of users simply won't learn the authentic concepts. It's just too difficult in many cases to throw users into the pool and expect them to sink or swim. Remember the purpose of an analogy: take something familiar and relate it to something unfamiliar, and thereby give insight into that unfamiliar idea. When it comes to networking, computers, and security, we're talking about things that are all too often abstractions, and abstractions are easier to understand with analogies.

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