Unpleasant Design Could Encourage Better Cyber Hygiene

Recent revelations that service members and intelligence professionals are inadvertently giving up their locations and fitness patterns via mobile apps caught federal agencies by surprise.

The surprise wasn’t that Fitbits, smartphones or workout apps try to collect information, nor that some users ignore policies reminding them to watch their privacy and location settings. The real surprise is that many IT policies aren’t doing more to help stop such inadvertent fitness data leaks.

If even fitness-conscious military and intelligence personnel are unknowingly trading security and privacy for convenience, how can IT security managers increase security awareness and compliance?

One answer: Unpleasant design.

Unpleasant design is a proven technique for using design to discourage unwanted behavior. Ever get stuck in an airport and long for a place to lie down — only to find every bench or row of seats is fitted with armrests? That’s no accident. Airports and train terminals don’t want people sleeping across benches. Or consider the decorative metalwork sometimes placed on urban windowsills or planter walls — designed expressly to keep loiterers from sitting down. It’s the same with harsh lights in suburban parking lots, which discourage people from hanging out and make it harder for criminals to lurk in the shadows.

As the federal government and other agency IT security leaders investigate these inadvertent disclosures, can they employ those same concepts to encourage better cyber behavior?

Here’s how unpleasant design might apply to federally furnished Wi-Fi networks: Rather than allow access with only a password, users instead might be required to have their Internet of Things (IoT) devices pass a security screening that requires certain security settings. That screening could include ensuring location services are disabled while such devices are connected to government-provided networks.

Employees would then have to choose between the convenience of free Wi-Fi for personal devices and the risks of inadequate operations security (OPSEC) via insecure device settings.

This of course, only works where users have access to such networks. At facilities where personal devices must be deposited in lockers or left in cars, it won’t make a difference. But for users working (and living) on installations where personnel routinely access Wi-Fi networks, this could be highly effective.

Screening – and even blocking – certain apps or domains could be managed through a cloud access security broker, network security management software that can enforce locally set rules governing apps actively using location data or posing other security risks. Network managers could whitelist acceptable apps and settings, while blocking those deemed unacceptable. If agencies already do that for their wired networks, why not for wireless?

Inconvenient? Absolutely. That’s the point.

IT security staffs are constantly navigating the optimal balance between security and convenience. Perfect security is achievable only when nothing is connected to anything else. Each new connection and additional convenience introduces another dent in the network’s armor.

Employing cloud-access security as a condition of Wi-Fi network access will impinge on some conveniences. In most cases, truly determined users can work around those rules by using local cellular data access instead. In most parts of the world, however, those places where the need for OPSEC is greatest, that access comes with a direct cash cost. When users pay for data by the megabyte, they’re much more likely to give up some convenience, check security and privacy settings, and limit their data consumption.

This too, is unpleasant design at work. Cellular network owners must balance network capacity with use. Lower-capacity networks control demand by raising prices, knowing that higher priced data discourages unbridled consumption.

Training and awareness will always be the most important factors in securing privacy and location data, because few users are willing to wade through pages-long user agreements to discover what’s hidden in the fine print and legalese they contain. More plain language and simpler settings for opting-in or out of certain kinds of data sharing are needed – and app makers must recognize that failing to heed such requirements only increase the risk that government steps in with new regulations.

But training and awareness only go so far. People still click on bad links, which is why some federal agencies automatically disable them. It makes users take a closer, harder look and think twice before clicking. That too, is unpleasant design.

So is requiring users to wear a badge that doubles as a computer access card (as is the case with the Pentagon’s Common Access Card and most Personal Identity Verification cards). Yet, knowing that some will inevitably leave the cards in their computers, such systems automatically log off after only a few minutes of inactivity. It’s inconvenient, but more secure.

We know this much: Human nature is such that people will take the path of least resistance. If that means accepting security settings that aren’t safe, that’s what’s going to happen. Though interrupting that convenience and turning it on its head by means of Wi-Fi security won’t stop everyone. But it might have prevented Australian undergrad Nathan Ruser – and who knows who else – from identifying the regular jogging routes of military members (among other examples) from Strava’s house-built heat map and the 13 trillion GPS points all collected from users.

“If soldiers use the app like normal people do,” Ruser tweeted Jan. 27, “it could be especially dangerous … I shouldn’t be able to establish any pattern of life info from this far away.”


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