The three behaviours of security experts that non-expert users should learn

IT security experts are more likely to use password managers and two-factor authentication (2FA) than users with little security expertise, Google researchers have found in an extensive survey that confirmed security experts and non-experts protect their systems in very different ways.

The three researchers – who include Google authentication researcher Dr Iulia Ion, research scientist Rob Reeder, and human-computer interaction researcher Dr Sunny Consolvo – surveyed 231 security experts (defined as someone having at least five years' experience working in or studying computer security) and 294 non-experts about their habits around a variety of security-related behaviours.

Differences between the groups were often stark: whereas 35 percent of experts said they regularly update their systems to stay safe, just one-tenth as many non-experts said they did the same.

Some 42 percent of non-experts relied on antivirus tools for security, compared with around 7 percent of experts.

Experts were more likely to utilise technological controls such as 2FA (20 percent vs 3 percent), unique passwords (25 percent vs 15 percent), password managers (12 percent vs 3 percent), Linux (6 percent vs 1 percent).

Users, by contrast, generally relied on behavioural protections such as not sharing information (17 percent of non-experts vs 9 percent of experts), using strong passwords (31 percent vs 18 percent), visiting only known Web sites (21 percent vs 5 percent), changing passwords frequently (21 percent vs 2 percent), and deleting cookies (7 percent vs 1 percent).

The broad variability between the results highlights the persistent differences in perception of common security issues and the practices taken to ensure online security, the authors of the study (available here) concluded. “Our results suggest that at least some things that experts do and recommend are not being done by non-experts,” the authors noted.

This suggests that “not just better messaging, but also systems and usability work is necessary to get non-experts to follow” the security practices most recommended by experts (installing software updates in a timely manner, use of a password manager, and use of 2FA), the authors wrote.

Automating some of these processes – for example, developing a centralised updates manager that would automatically download software updates for all applications in use – would help non-experts catch up, the authors concluded.

Similarly, better security for non-experts would come through efforts to improve the usability of password managers – aversion to which, the study suggested, “may also be due to an ingrained mental model that passwords should not be stored or written down – advice users have been given for decades.”

“But as threat models are shifting from offline to online attacks and password reuse is becoming an increasing problem,” they continued, “using password managers or writing passwords down in a secure location seems to be a promising solution.”

Likewise, further research needs to be done to understand why users aren't using 2FA – including figuring out how to explain to non-expert users how it works, and how it can be more easily utilised.

“More work has to be done on improving the limitations of security practices identified in this work which are used by experts but not by non-experts,” the authors concluded. “Nevertheless, based on our findings, some promising security advice emerges.”

This article is brought to you by Enex TestLab, content directors for CSO Australia.

Tags IT trainingCSO AustraliaSecurity expertsRob Reedersecurity behaviorDr Sunny Consolvo

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