Today, you can find more online security tips in a few seconds than you could use in a lifetime. While this collection of best practices is rich, it’s not always useful; it can be difficult to know which ones to prioritize, and why.
Questions like ‘Why do people make some security choices (and not others)?’ and ‘How effectively does the security community communicate its best practices?’ are at the heart of a new paper called, “…no one can hack my mind”: Comparing Expert and Non-Expert Security Practices” that we’ll present this week at the Symposium on Usable Privacy and Security.
This paper outlines the results of two surveys—one with 231 security experts, and another with 294 web-users who aren’t security experts—in which we asked both groups what they do to stay safe online. We wanted to compare and contrast responses from the two groups, and better understand differences and why they may exist.
Experts’ and non-experts’ top 5 security practices
Here are experts’ and non-experts’ top security practices, according to our study. We asked each participant to list 3 practices:
Common ground: careful password management
Clearly, careful password management is a priority for both groups. But, they differ on their approaches.
Security experts rely heavily on password managers, services that store and protect all of a user’s passwords in one place. Experts reported using password managers, for at least some of their accounts, three-times more frequently than non-experts. As one expert said, “Password managers change the whole calculus because they make it possible to have both strong and unique passwords.”
On the other hand, only 24% of non-experts reported using password managers for at least some of their accounts, compared to 73% of experts. Our findings suggested this was due to lack of education about the benefits of password managers and/or a perceived lack of trust in these programs. “I try to remember my passwords because no one can hack my mind,” one non-expert told us.
Key differences: software updates and antivirus software
Despite some overlap, experts’ and non-experts’ top answers were remarkably different.
35% of experts and only 2% of non-experts said that installing software updates was one of their top security practices. Experts recognize the benefits of updates—“Patch, patch, patch,” said one expert—while non-experts not only aren’t clear on them, but are concerned about the potential risks of software updates. A non-expert told us: “I don’t know if updating software is always safe. What [if] you download malicious software?” and “Automatic software updates are not safe in my opinion, since it can be abused to update malicious content.”
Meanwhile, 42% of non-experts vs. only 7% of experts said that running antivirus software was one of the top three three things they do to stay safe online. Experts acknowledged the benefits of antivirus software, but expressed concern that it might give users a false sense of security since it’s not a bulletproof solution.
More broadly, our findings highlight fundamental misunderstandings about basic online security practices. Software updates, for example, are the seatbelts of online security; they make you safer, period. And yet, many non-experts not only overlook these as a best practice, but also mistakenly worry that software updates are a security risk.
No practice on either list—expert or non-expert—makes users less secure. But, there is clearly room to improve how security best practices are prioritized and communicated to the vast majority of (non expert) users. We’re looking forward to tackling that challenge.