Practical Cybersecurity, Part 1 – The problem of Education

I thought I’d close out the year by presenting my 2011 Virus Bulletin presentation. It builds upon my 2010 presentation about why we fall for scams which I blogged about earlier this year in my series The Psychology of Spamming:

Part 1 - How our brains work
Part 2 - The Limbic system, cognition and affect
Part 3 - External factors that influence our decisions
Part 4 - Why we fall for scams
Parr 5 - Solutions
Part 6 - The Flynn Effect

What follows is the solution to the problem.

Practical Cybersecurity – An Introduction

The cybersecurity industry has a problem.

For years we have been preaching to users that they need to practice better cyber security awareness – don’t click on links in spam, hover your mouse over a link to see where it goes, don’t click on suspicious videos in your Facebook account. But the message never gets through; people fall for hacker tricks every day.

The security industry then moans “Oh, users cannot be taught simple concepts! It’s hopeless!” But is the situation really hopeless? Is the problem the general public’s inability to grasp the message? Or is the problem the message itself? For example, take some standard password advice that the computer industry routinely gives: use a strong password, one that consists of random letters and numbers and contains a lot of letters and numbers. Do this for all of the websites that you use. Yet countless studies demonstrate that humans are only capable of memorizing 7-10 random digits at a time. How are we supposed to memorize 10 random digits, and do this multiple times for the many websites that we use?


The advice that the computer industry gives is impractical; we may give people the secret formula to becoming a millionaire: first, get a million dollars…

It’s not that we in the cybersecurity industry don’t have a valuable message to get across to people. We do. However, we need to learn how to give good, practical advice that people can use in real life, and we need to learn how to teach it so people will retain it. To do that, we need to look at successful educational techniques and use them when we evangelize our own message.


At the 2010 Virus Bulletin conference, I presented a paper titled The Psychology of Spamming. In it, I examined why people fall for scams in email. The reason is that the amount of change in technology has outpaced our biological capacity to absorb it. For example, our bodies evolved to seek out fats, salts and sugars. We need those in order to survive. But today, we can mass produce donuts, salad dressing and yummy French fries. We know that these are not healthy for us, but our brains tell us that they are very tasty and they masquerade as food. We can’t yet tell the difference between good-for-us and not-good-for-us.

Similarly, when it comes to technology, we fall for scams when they involve money, food, sex or revenge.

When a scam hits us and hides behind any of these masks – a phishing scam that threatens to cut off your source of income, or a fake Viagra scam that promises you more sex – the logical part of our brains, the neo-cortex, stops executing and the limbic part of our brain, the part designed to react, takes over. If the correct emotions are triggered, we behave in ways that are contrary to our own best interests. Thus, while technology has helped our lives immensely, it does not replace our basic biological needs and drives. You can’t eat an iPad.

The solution to combating scams is through education. Researchers have determined that over time, people are becoming more intelligent. Educational test scores have not improved, but IQ test scores have. People are better at abstract reasoning now than they were before. For example: what animal is that? A cow. What sounds does a cow make? Moo. How many legs does a cow have? Four. What else has four legs? A dog. How are they similar? They are both mammals. And so forth.

Because people are better at abstract reasoning, they are better at transferring concepts from one topic to another. People today understand moral concepts like theft and robbery and the need to protect your property. If we already teach people the ideas of protection of their physical property and how to recognize physical danger, then through good education techniques we should be able to teach them to recognize cyber danger and protecting their online property.


The key to educating people about cyber security is through “transfer”; it is the ability to take what you have learned and transfer it to a new situation. When we are in school, we transfer basic addition to learning our multiplication tables, and transfer multiplication to calculus. We transfer our knowledge gained from walking to running to navigating while driving. We transfer cooking a single food item to preparing complex meals. The learning that we have acquired previously is reused for – transferred to – other situations, and then built upon.

When security experts complain about users’ lack of security awareness, they are really complaining about users’ inability to transfer common sense in real life to a fake Viagra scam in their junk mail folder. They might consider themselves savvy people at recognizing real life scams, but this vigilance does not transfer to computer scams. Instead, they revert back to believing that a deal too good to be true really is true and not think through the possibility that it is most likely a scam.

Why is there this lack of transfer?

Research into learning techniques and education has uncovered methods that support transfer. In order to make our message stick with the general public, we need to use these methods when we are distributing our message.

Part 1 - Introduction 
Part 2 – Expertise
Part 3 – Experience 
Part 4 – Metacognition 
Part 5 – What should we teach?
Part 6 – Bringing it all together  

Comments (1)
  1. Xandra Meyer says:

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