News

The hardest of targets

At the official opening of the National Cyber Security Centre on February 14, opening speech, director Ciaran Martin expressed his hope that prospective attackers would come to think of the UK as the “hardest of targets”. The comment reflects the government’s strategy, which has broadened from national security to supporting a resilient digital society.

Angela Sasse at CPDP2017

Angela Sasse at CPDP2017

At the European Information Security Summit, RISCS director and UCL professor Angela Sasse, welcomed the opening, saying that “There should be a single authoritative source for advice.” The deputy director, Royal Holloway professor Lizzie Coles-Kemp, spoke about the importance of finding common language among disparate disciplines to create awareness across an organisation.

A crucial point, said Sasse is to “stop asking people to do impossible things”. Instead of continuing to blame users, security needs to emulate other areas of technology to support business processes and recognise that good design and appropriate tools are essential to helping people do the right thing. Sasse’s interest in usability and security goes back to 1999, when she and Anne Adams wrote the paper Users Are Not the Enemy. In 2006, Sasse, with Mike Wonham and Adam Beautement, followed up with the concept of the compliance budget, which framed user time and cognitive capacity as a finite organisational resource like any other.

NCSC’s recent revised password guidance is an example of both the kind of collaboration Martin talked about in his speech and Sasse’s approach. Much of the advice derives from work done at RISCS to incorporate usability principles into actionable guidance based on scientific evidence. In an August 2014 paper (PDF), Cormac Herley, Dinei Florencio (Microsoft Research), and Paul C. van Oorschot (Carleton University) studied the impact on users of standard requirements to use a unique random string for every password. In their mathematical analysis, attempting to follow this advice does not scale to the numbers of passwords many people have to cope with today. Managing 100 such passwords is equivalent to memorising 1,361 places of pi or the ordering of 17 packs of cards – a cognitive impossibility for all but a very rare few.

Along with EPSRC, NCSC is a founding funder of this second phase of RISCS. In the first phase, RISCS was created to begin to build an evidence base for the science of cyber security. In its second phase, RISCS is different in two ways: first, it is broadening past its original purely organisational perspective to include consumers, citizens, SMEs, charities, and communities; second it is pursuing active collaboration outside academia via a practitioners panel led by Royal Holloway senior lecturer Geraint Price.

Over the coming years, this blog will publish news and commentary about both our own research and that of others with the goal of providing the community with the best up-to-date advice we can. We look forward to collaborating with the NCSC, with practitioners, and with the community at large.

About Wendy M. Grossman

Freelance writer specializing in computers, freedom, and privacy. For RISCS, I write blog posts and meeting and talk summaries