Dan GriffinWelcome to the tenth edition of the JW Secure Informer, our bi-monthly newsletter. This is an opportunity to share what’s on our radar, specifically with respect to enterprise network security, but also regarding IT and business more generally.

The Informer is intended to be useful content and good for a quick read. So if it’s just clutter in your inbox, we’ve failed, and I hope you’ll let us know.

Usable Security – Really?

“Security adds hassle and blocks progress.”
“Tight security usually leads first to paralysis
and then to weak security,
which no one complains about until there is a crisis.”
Butler Lampson

It has become something of a cliché to say that there is a trade-off between security and usability of any user software. We have all experienced identity fatigue where each site we visit has incompatible restrictions on the user name and password that can be used to access the site. Psychologists have known that it is fairly easy for most of use to keep one or two username and password combinations straight, but as soon as users need more; forget it. There is almost no chance that users can keep all of their identity needs straight, let alone stick to stringent security policies while still completing the task that sent us to the internet in the first place. Many solutions have been proposed: smart cards, biometrics and single sign-on programs. None has provided more than isolated improvements. But we have found a method that helps make the best of a bad situation, so read on.

Both of the papers referenced below point out that “security is about economics”. It is a balance between the expected benefit of loss prevention versus the real cost, not only of deploying and maintaining hardware and software that blocks attacks that seek to create those losses, but also the time spent by users remembering or recovering passwords, or finding a workaround that allows them to do their jobs. Most security is too difficult for users who have little incentive to cooperate with a hassle that blocks their ability to get their work done. This is completely rational behavior by users who perceive the cost of security to be too high given the time that it takes away from productive work. By the same token, trying to “educate” users on good security practices in face of the clear and present cost to them of complying with security directives is not time well spent.

JW Secure creates security solutions where the question, “Is this Usable Security?” can be answered – “Yes, really!” That answer is supported by metrics generated both during normal operations and by user feedback. These are metrics that not only prove the efficacy of deployed product, but also help continuous improvement.

Metrics that can be generated automatically for comparison between new and experienced users to determine how clear each task and decision point is include:

  1. Time to complete specific tasks,
  2. Time at each decision page,
  3. Fall off at each decision page and for the entire task.
  4. For longer term operations, whether the user needs to stop a task and return later.

These data should be a part of the normal data collection along with server statistics.

The following notes apply to metrics that can be generated by user input either during the operation of the task or later using feedback from a variety of channels:

  1. The best feedback comes from the user at the time that they frustrated.
  2. Always allow the user send feedback on a task as it completes.
  3. Radio button feedback takes the least user effort and so will have the best volume.
  4. Text boxes where users can tell you their problem will be the most helpful.
  5. The most expensive feedback is from focus groups or user interviews.

The real point is to marry the determination of whether the security is usable with “design for test” principals. That way, the design of the schema and data collection will include the information needed to get real usability metrics from the operation of the delivered code. This should happen both during beta testing and in the field. The results drive improvements to subsequent versions of the product.

Interesting reports on usable security: