So Long, And No Thanks for the Externalities: The Rational Rejection of Security Advice by Users

MSR-TR-2009-46 |


The failure of users to follow security advice has often been noted. They chose weak passwords, ignore security warnings, and are oblivious to certificates. It is often suggested that users are hopelessly lazy and unmotivated on security questions. We argue that users’ rejection of the security advice they receive is entirely rational from an economic perspective. As with many activities, online crime generates direct losses and externalities. The advice offers to shield them from the direct costs of attacks, but burdens them with the indirect costs, or externalities. Since the direct costs are generally small relative to the indirect ones, they reject this bargain. We examine three areas of user education: password rules, phishing site identification, and SSL certificates. In each we find that the advice is complex and growing, but the benefit is largely speculative or moot. In the cases where we can estimate benefit, it emerges that the burden of following the security advice is actually greater than the direct losses caused by the attack.