What's the difference between you and a sea slug? When it comes to IT security, nothing

Engineers need to change user interfaces

Usenix Enigma Several academics have been using brain scanning methods to see how people handle computer security, and the resounding result is that our brains are biochemically working against us in this realm.

In a talk at the Enigma 2017 security conference, Anthony Vance, professor of information systems at Brigham Young University in Utah, recounted a series of experiments on people looking at security warnings online. In a variety of scenarios, humans showed a striking similarity to Aplysia californica, or the California sea slug.

In 2000, professor Eric Kandel earned a Nobel Prize for proving that the sea slug had a memory and would react to stimuli with less and less interest once it learned that there wasn’t a threat. Humans are the same, and that helps explain why we are poor at computer security. However, there is a fix.

Vance and his team ran a series of volunteers in a functional magnetic resonance imaging system and displayed a series of 40 real-world security warning windows. They found that after just the second warning, the amount of attention the subject paid to it dropped off and fell further with each repetition, while boredom rates grew.

It was a demonstration of a known problem – habituation. It was demonstrated in the IT world with Windows Vista, which in its early incarnation spammed up so many security warnings that users just got used to clicking out of them.

So the team tried varying the design of the security warning windows, by changing their color, font, and even making them wobble slightly. This dramatically improved attention rates among subjects. Interest still declined, but much more slowly, and people weren’t as bored.

“That’s awkward – one of fundamental basis’ of user interface design is consistency,” Vance said. “But this is a danger for system notification.”

In the Q&A section, a Google engineer said that the Chocolate Factory’s own experience mirrored the research. In an effort to kill malware, Google pushed out messages on their search page warning infected users that they needed to clean up their systems.

“We saw a lot of users clean up their systems but many ignored it and never sorted out the issue,” he said. “After a few weeks we changed the background color of the warning from yellow to pink and saw a massive increase in number of users fixing the malware.”

Another brain danger is what he called dual task interference. While many people think that they are great at multitasking, he said, the reality is that we’re all lousy at it.

The team asked subjects to memorize a series of six-digit codes, and then showed them a security warning on screen. If the warning screen popped up in the middle of the memorizing process, not only were a third fewer codes remembered – the correct reaction to the security warning window dropped 45 per cent.

This is unfortunate from a security screen standpoint, since they typically pop up after a computer user performs an action and is expecting a response. The user clicks on a web page, expects to see the endpoint, and instead gets a security warning. They want to see the page so don’t read the window and click it away.

“Security should be brain compatible, and work with brain not against it,” Vance said. “I’d also suggest engineers need to worry less about attacks, and more that the neurobiology of their users is working against current security practice.”

Incidentally, The Reg asked if there was any truth in the conventional wisdom that women are better at multitasking than men. Vance said his tests showed no such evidence. ®


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