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net.wars: Security for the rest of us

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 24 July 2009


Many governments, faced with the question of how to improve national security, would do the obvious thing: round up the usual suspects. These would be, of course, the experts – that is, the security services and law enforcement. This exercise would be a lot like asking the record companies and film studios to advise on how to improve copyright: what you'd get is more of the same.

Wendy M Grossman

This is why it was so interesting to discover that the US National Academies of Science was convening a workshop to consult on what research topics to consider funding, and began by appointing a committee that included privacy advocates and usability experts, folks like Microsoft researcher Butler Lampson, Susan Landau, co-author of books on privacy and wiretapping, and Donald Norman, author of the classic book The Design of Everyday Things.

Choosing these people suggests that we might be approaching a watershed like that of the late 1990s, when the UK and the US governments were both forced to understand that encryption was not just for the military any more. The peace-time uses of cryptography to secure Internet transactions and protect mobile phone calls from casual eavesdropping are much broader than crypto's war-time use to secure military communications.

Similarly, security is now everyone's problem, both individually and collectively.

The vulnerability of each individual computer is a negative network externality, as NYU economist Nicholas Economides pointed out. But, as many asked, how do you get people to understand remote risks? How do you make the case for added inconvenience? Each company we deal with makes the assumption that we can afford the time to "just click to unsubscribe" or remember one password, without really understanding the growing aggregate burden on us. Norman commented that door locks are a trade-off, too: we accept a little bit of inconvenience in return for improved security. But locks don't scale; they're acceptable as long as we only have to manage a small number of them.

In his 2006 book, Revolutionary Wealth, Alvin Toffler comments that most of us, without realizing it, have a hidden third, increasingly onerous job, "prosumer". Companies, he explained, are increasingly saving money for producers, by having us do their work for them. We retrieve and print out our own bills, burn our own CDs, provide unpaid technical support for ourselves and our families. One of Lorrie Cranor's students did the math to calculate the cost in lost time and opportunities if everyone in the US read annually the privacy policy of each Web site they visited once a month.

Most of these things require college-level reading skills; figure 244 hours per year per person, $3,544 each… $781 billion nationally. Weren't computers supposed to free us of that kind of drudgery? As everything moves online, aren't we looking at a full-time job just managing our personal security?

That, in fact, is one characteristic that many implementations of security share with welfare offices – and that is becoming pervasive: an utter lack of respect for the least renewable resource, people's time. There's a simple reason for that: the users of most security systems are deemed to be the people who impose it, not the people – us – who have to run the gamut.

There might be a useful comparison to information overload, a topic we used to see a lot about ten years back. When I wrote about that for ComputerActive in 1999, I discovered that everyone I knew had a particular strategy for coping with "techno-stress" (the editor's term). One dealt with it by never seeking out information and never phoning anyone. His sister refused to have an answering machine. One simply went to bed every day at 9pm to escape. Some refused to use mobile phones, others to have computers at home..

But back then, you could make that choice. How much longer will we be able to draw boundaries around ourselves by, for example, refusing to use online banking, file tax returns online, or participate in social networks? How much security will we be able to opt out of in future? How much do security issues add to techno-stress?

We've been wandering in this particular wilderness a long time. Angela Sasse, whose 1999 paper Users Are Not the Enemy talked about the problems with passwords at British Telecom, said frankly, "I'm very frustrated, because I feel nothing has changed. Users still feel security is just an obstacle there to annoy them."

In practice, the workshop was like the TV game Jeopardy: the point was to generate research questions that will go into a report, which will be reviewed and redrafted before its eventual release. Hopefully, eventually, it will all lead to a series of requests for proposals and some really good research. It is a glimmer of hope.

Unless, that is, the gloominess of the beginning presentations wins out. If you listened to Lampson, Cranor, and to Economides, you got the distinct impression that the best thing that could happen for security is that we rip out the Internet (built to be open, not secure), trash all the computers (all of whose operating systems were designed in the pre-Internet era), and start over from scratch. Or, as the legendary local told the driver who was lost and asking for directions, "Well, I wouldn't start from here".

So, here's my question: how can we make security scale so that the burden stays manageable?


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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).