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Abstract

In this article, the author discusses why users compromise computer security mechanisms and how to take remedial measures. Confidentiality is an important aspect of computer security. It depends on authentication mechanisms, such as passwords, to safeguard access to information. Traditionally, authentication procedures are divided into two stages: identification and secret password. To date, research on password security and the usability of these mechanisms has rarely been investigated. Since security mechanisms are designed, implemented, applied and breached by people, human factors should be considered in their design. It seems that currently, hackers pay more attention to the human link in the security chain than security designers do, by using social engineering techniques to obtain passwords. The key element in password security is the crackablity of a password combination. System-generated passwords are essentially the optimal security approach; user-generated passwords are potentially more memorable and thus less likely to be disclosed. Password composition, alphanumeric password is more secure than one composed of letters alone. INSET: Recommendations.
40 December 1999/Vol. 42, No. 12 COMMUNICATIONS OF THE ACM
COMMUNICATIONS OF THE ACM December 1999/Vol. 42, No. 12 41
Confidentiality is an important aspect of computer security. It
depends on authentication mechanisms, such as passwords, to safeguard access to infor-
mation [9]. Traditionally, authentication procedures are divided into two stages: identifi-
cation (User ID), to identify the user; and authentication, to verify that the user is the
legitimate owner of the ID. It is the latter stage that requires a secret password. To date,
research on password security has focused on designing technical mechanisms to protect
Why users compromise computer security mechanisms and
how to take remedial measures.
QUENTIN WEBB
access to systems; the usability of these mecha-
nisms has rarely been investigated. Hitchings [8]
and Davis and Price [4] argue that this narrow per-
spective has produced security mechanisms that
are, in practice, less effective than they are generally
assumed to be. Since security mechanisms are
designed, implemented,
applied and breached by
people, human factors
should be considered in
their design. It seems that
currently, hackers pay more attention to the
human link in the security chain than security
designers do, for example, by using social engi-
neering techniques to obtain passwords.
The key element in password security is the
crackability of a password combination. Davies
and Ganesan [3] argue that an adversary’s ability
to crack passwords is greater than usually believed.
System-generated passwords are essentially the
optimal security approach; however, user-gener-
ated passwords are potentially more memorable
and thus less likely to be disclosed (because users
do not have to write them down). The U.S. Fed-
eral Information Processing Standards [5] suggest
several criteria for assuring different levels of pass-
word security. Password composition, for example,
relates the size of a character set from which a
password has been chosen to its level of security.
An alphanumeric
password is therefore
more secure than one
composed of letters
alone. Short password
lifetime—changing passwords frequently—is sug-
gested as reducing the risk associated with unde-
tected compromised passwords. Finally, password
ownership, in particular individual ownership, is
recommended to:
• Increase individual accountability;
• Reduce illicit usage;
• Allow for an establishment of system usage
audit trails; and
• Reduce frequent password changes due to
group membership fluctuations.
Anne Adams and
Martina Angela Sasse
USERS ARE NOT
THE ENEMY
There is evidence that many password users do not
comply with these suggested rules. DeAlvare [1]
found that once a password is chosen, a user is
unlikely to change it until it has been shown to be
compromised. Users were also found to construct
passwords that contained as few characters as possible
[2]. These observations cannot be disputed, but the
conclusion that this behavior occurs because users are
inherently careless—and therefore insecure—needs to
be challenged.
The Study
A Web-based questionnaire was used to obtain ini-
tial quantitative and qualitative data on user behav-
iors and perceptions relating to password systems.
The questionnaire focused mainly on password-
related user behaviors (password construction, fre-
quency of use, password recall and work practices)
and in particular memorability issues. A total of 139
responses were received, approximately half from
employees of Organization A (a technology com-
pany), the other half from users in organizations
throughout the world. There was a wide range of
frequency and duration of password use among
respondents. The questionnaire was followed by 30
semistructured in-depth interviews with a variety of
users in Organization A and Organization B (a com-
pany in the construction sector). Interview ques-
tions covered password generation and recall along
with systems and organizational issues raised by
respondents in the questionnaire. The interview for-
mat allowed participants to introduce new issues to
the discussion that they regarded as related to pass-
word usage. Results from the open-ended sections of
the questionnaire were brought together with results
from the in-depth interviews to give a wide sample
for analysis.
The analysis, using a social science based method
called Grounded Theory [10], provided a framework
of issues affecting user behavior, with a step-by-step
account of password usage problems and possible
intervention points. Four major factors influencing
effective password usage were identified within the
framework:
• Multiple passwords;
• Password content;
• Perceived compatibility with work practices; and
• Users’ perceptions of organizational security and
information sensitivity.
Because the findings from the study are too
numerous to discuss in detail here, key points of
interest from each factor are presented.
Many users have to remember multiple passwords,
that is, use different passwords for different applica-
tions and/or change passwords frequently due to pass-
word expiration mechanisms. Having a large number
of passwords reduces their memorability and increases
insecure work practices, such as writing passwords
down—50% of questionnaire respondents wrote
their passwords down in one form or another.1One
employee emphasized this relationship when he said
“…because I was forced into changing it every month
I had to write it down.” Poor password design (for
example, using “password” as the password) was also
found to be related to multiple passwords. “Con-
stantly changing passwords” were blamed by another
employee for producing “…very simple choices that
are easy to guess, or break, within seconds of using
‘Cracker’.2Hence there is no security.” It is interesting
to note here that users, again, perceive their behavior
to be caused by a mechanism designed to increase
security. At the same time, users often devise their
own procedures to increase password memorability
and security. Some users devise their own methods for
creating memorable multiple passwords through
related passwords (linking their passwords via some
common element)—50% of questionnaire respon-
dents employed this method. Many users try to com-
ply with security rules by varying elements in these
linked passwords (name1, name2, name3, and so
forth). However, rather than improving memorability
and security, this method actually decreases password
memorability due to within-list interference [11],
causing users to write down passwords which, of
course, compromises password security levels.
Users’ knowledge of what constitutes secure pass-
word content (the character content of the password)
was inadequate. Without feedback from security
experts, users created their own rules on password
design that were often anything but secure. Dictio-
nary words and names are the most vulnerable forms
of passwords, but many users do not understand how
password cracking works. Members of the security
department in Organization A were appalled to dis-
cover that one of their employees suggested: “I would
have thought that if you picked something like your
wife’s maiden name or something then the chances of
a complete stranger guessing *********, in my case,
were pretty remote.”
At the same time, restrictions introduced to create
more secure password content may produce less
memorable passwords, leading to increased password
disclosure (because users write passwords down).
42 December 1999/Vol. 42, No. 12 COMMUNICATIONS OF THE ACM
1The response was the same for all users who answered these questions—the other
50% of users left these questions blank.
2A password dictionary checker.
Many users circumvent such restrictions to produce
passwords they find easy to remember. However, the
resulting passwords tend to be less secure in terms of
content. Even worse, having to circumvent security
procedures lowers users’ regard for the overall security
arrangements in the organization, which, in turn,
increases password disclosure.
Another new finding of this study is the impor-
tance of compatibility between work practices and
password procedures. Organization A employed indi-
vidually owned passwords for group working that
users perceived as incompatible with their working
procedures (they advocated shared passwords for
themselves). Users in Organization B experienced this
incompatibility in reverse: they emphatically rejected
the departmental policy of group passwords for indi-
vidual personal information (such as email).
One reason why Organization A insisted on indi-
vidual passwords was to establish the users’ perception
of accountability through audit trails of system usage.
We found, however, that most users had not consid-
ered the possibility that their actions might be
tracked. It is telling that the only user who made the
connection cheerfully revealed that he avoided being
tracked by using other users’ passwords for certain
transactions, so that “…if there’s any problem, they
get it in the neck, not you.”
The study clearly showed that users are not suffi-
ciently informed about security issues. This causes
them to construct their own model of possible secu-
rity threats and the importance of security and these
are often wildly inaccurate. Users tend to be guided by
what they actually see—or don’t. As one manager
stated: “I don’t think that hacking is a problem—I’ve
had no visibility of hacking that may go on. None at
all.” Another employee observed that “…security
problems are more by word of mouth…”. This lack of
awareness was corroborated by results from the Web
questionnaire. A complex interaction between users
perceptions of organizational security and informa-
tion sensitivity was identified. Users identified certain
systems as worthy of secure password practices, while
others were perceived as “not important enough.”
Without any feedback from the organization, users
rated confidential information about individuals (per-
sonnel files, email) as sensitive; but commercially sen-
sitive information (such as customer databases and
financial data) was often seen as less sensitive. Some
users stated that they appreciated printed document
classifications (for example, Confidential, Not for Cir-
culation), indicating their need for information sensi-
tivity guidance and rules for levels of protection in
online documentation.
Two main problems in password usage were iden-
tified: system factors, which users perceive they are
forced to circumvent, and external factors, which are
perceived as incompatible with working procedures.
Both these problems are due to a lack of communica-
tion between security departments and users: users do
not understand security issues, while security depart-
ments lack an understanding of users’ perceptions,
tasks, and needs. The result is that security depart-
ments typecast users as “inherently insecure”: at best,
they are a security risk that needs to be controlled and
managed, at worst, they are the enemy within. Users,
on the other hand, perceive many security mecha-
nisms as laborious and unnecessary—an overhead
that gets in the way of their real work.
Users Lack Security Knowledge
Parker [9] points out that a major doctrine in pass-
word security, adopted from the military, is the need-
to-know principle. The assumption is that the more
known about a security mechanism, the easier it is to
attack; restricting access to this knowledge therefore
increases security. Users are often told as little as pos-
sible because security departments see them as
“inherently insecure.” One clear finding from this
study is that inadequate knowledge of password pro-
cedures, content, and cracking lies at the root of
users’ “insecure” behaviors.
Both Organizations A and B had replaced system-
generated passwords with user-generated ones, thus
shifting the responsibility for creating secure passwords
to the users. However, known rules for creating secure
passwords were rarely communicated to users. Users
were asked to complete a skilled design job without
adequate training or online feedback. This problem
was compounded by the security departments’ implicit
need-to-know policy on the sensitivity of particular
information, potential security breaches, and risks.
Users perceived threats to the organization to be low
COMMUNICATIONS OF THE ACM December 1999/Vol. 42, No. 12 43
Insufficient communication with users produces
a lack of user-centered design in security mechanisms.
because of their own judgments of the information’s
lack of importance or visible threats. This misunder-
standing led to the general misconception that pass-
word cracking is done on a “personal” basis. They
perceived the risk to be low because their role in the
system was not important. Organization A decided to
provide online support and feedback to users in the
process of password design; a cracker program was
installed, with constructive advice provided on secure
password design for all users whose password was
cracked. Online information on threats to password
security (“Monthly security report and update”) is also
being considered.
Finally, we found that users do not understand the
authentication process, confusing the user identifica-
tion (ID) and password sections. Many users assumed
IDs were another form of password to be secured and
recalled in the same manner. This increased users’
perception of the mental workload associated with
passwords, which then reduced their motivation to
comply with the suggested behavior. The IDs, within
the organizations investigated, could have caused this
misconception by having no standardized format for
different applications and often being non-words
without meaning. In response to this finding, Orga-
nization A decided to introduce a single sign-on for
users with a high number of passwords and is consid-
ering the use of smart cards as an identification mech-
anism. User authentication using physical attributes
(biometrics) does not require ID recall, and thus
offers a mechanism with reduced mental overhead.
The main drawback of these methods is the cost of
both installation and monitoring. Organizations also
have to consider whether the level and consequences
of “false positive” alarms are acceptable to their busi-
ness. Finally, there is a question of how to combine
the specialized equipment required for such methods
with remote access to systems, which is an increasing
requirement in an age of nomadic professionals.
Security Needs User-Centered Design
Insufficient communication with users produces a
lack of a user-centered design in security mecha-
nisms. Many of these mechanisms create overheads
for users, or require unworkable user behavior. It is
therefore hardly surprising to find that many users
try to circumvent such mechanisms.
Requiring users to have a large number of pass-
words (for multiple applications and change regimes)
was found to create serious usability problems.
Although change regimes are employed to reduce the
impact of an undetected security breach, our findings
suggest they reduce the overall password security in an
organization. Users required to change their pass-
words frequently produce less secure password con-
tent (because they have to be more memorable) and
disclose their passwords more frequently. Many of the
users felt forced into these circumventing procedures,
which subsequently decreased their own security
motivation. Ultimately, this produces a spiraling
decline in users’ password behavior (“I cannot
remember my password, I have to write it down,
everyone knows it’s on a post-it in my drawer, so I
might as well stick it on the screen and tell everyone
who wants to know.”) Organization A was under-
standably worried to discover such attitudes, as social
engineers rely on password disclosure, low security
awareness and motivation to breach security mecha-
nisms. The cost associated with resetting passwords in
Organization A was one of the visible consequences,
prompting the study that is the basis for this article.
Recognizing the impact that cognitive overheads
introduced by some password mechanisms have on
users’ security motivation, the security and human
factors groups in Organization A have joined forces to
develop a user-centered approach to the design of
password and other security mechanisms. Such
approaches will also have to take into account that the
number of passwords required outside the workplace
is constantly growing thus increasing the cognitive
load of users.
Motivating Users
A technical bias toward security mechanisms has
produced a simplistic approach to user authentica-
tion: restricting access to data by identification and
authentication of a user. This simplistic approach
may work well in military environments, but limits
usable solutions to the security problems of modern
organizations seeking to encourage work practices
such as teamwork and shared responsibility. Such
organizations require support for trust and informa-
tion sharing. The authoritarian approach has also
led to security departments’ reluctance to communi-
cate with users with regard to work practices. It has
been suggested by the U.S. Federal Information Pro-
cessing Standards (FIPS) [5] that individual owner-
ship of passwords increases accountability and
decreases illicit usage of passwords, because of the
possibility of audit trailing—a byproduct of authen-
tication. However, both of these assumptions rely on
users’ perceptions which, as previously mentioned,
do not always comply with those of the security
departments. FIPS [5] also suggests that shared pass-
words for groups are insecure. This study has iden-
tified that—when users perceive they are using
shared passwords for work carried out in a team—
this may increase their perceptions of group respon-
44 December 1999/Vol. 42, No. 12 COMMUNICATIONS OF THE ACM
sibility and accountability. If a password mechanism
is incompatible with users’ work practices, they per-
ceive the security mechanism as “not sensible” and
circumvent it (for example, by disclosing their pass-
word to other group members). This can lead to a
perception that all password mechanisms are “point-
less,” circumventing all of them and decreasing over-
all security. This does not mean that individual
passwords should not be used in organizations with
team-based working; it is worth considering protect-
ing access to shared information with a shared pass-
word while leaving individual passwords for
individual activities. The increased mental load of an
additional shared password may cause less problems
than the spiraling decline in security behavior caused
by “incompatible” mechanisms.
It is important to challenge the view that users are
never motivated to behave in a secure manner. Our
results show that the majority of users were security-
conscious, as long as they perceive the need for these
behaviors (for example, because of obvious external
threats or the perceived sensitivity of the information
protected). These findings are supported by research
within Organization B, where both physical and com-
puter security levels were low and security threats were
evident to users. In this situation, users demonstrated
exemplary behavior with their own passwords. We
argue that the need-to-know principle should be jetti-
soned. The main argument of its proponents is that
by informing users about the rationale behind security
mechanisms, along with real and potential threats to
security, they may be lowering security by increasing
the possibility of information leaks. This attitude has
led to a twofold problem: (a) users’ lack of security
awareness, and (b) security departments’ lack of
knowledge about users, producing security mecha-
nisms and systems that are not usable. These two fac-
tors lower users’ motivation to produce secure work
practices. This in turn reinforces security depart-
ments’ belief that users are “inherently insecure” and
leads to the introduction of stricter mechanisms,
which require more effort from users. This vicious cir-
cle needs to be broken. Communication between
security departments ands users is therefore often
restricted to “ticking off ” users caught circumventing
the rules. This approach does not fit with modern dis-
tributed and networked organizations, which depend
on communication and collaboration. Users have to
be treated as partners in the endeavor to secure an
organization’s systems, not as the enemy within. Sys-
tem security is one of the last areas in IT in which
user-centered design and user training are not
regarded as essential—this has to change.
Users and Password Behavior
Insecure work practices and low security motivation
have been identified by research on information secu-
rity as major problems that must be addressed [2, 3,
6, 7]. The research presented here does, however,
clearly identify the cause of these user-related prob-
lems; in the sidebar “Recommendations” we summa-
rize methods for addressing these problems. There is
an implicit assumption that users are not inherently
motivated to adopt secure behavior, but that such
behavior can be achieved through drills and threats of
punishment in case of non-compliance. Knowledge
from psychology and human-computer interaction
indicates that users’ behavior is likely to be more
complex than a simple conditioned response. This
study demonstrates that users forced to comply with
password mechanisms incompatible with work prac-
tices may produce responses that circumvent the
whole procedure. Insecure work practices and low
security motivation among users can be caused by
security mechanisms and policies that take no
account of users’ work practices, organizational
strategies, and usability. These factors are pivotal in
the design and implementation of most computer
systems today. Designers of security mechanisms
must realize that they are the key to successful secu-
rity system. Unless security departments understand
how the mechanisms they design are used in practice,
there will remain the danger that mechanisms that
look secure on paper will fail in practice.
References
1. DeAlvare, A.M. A framework for password selection. In Proceedings of
Unix Security Workshop II. (Portland, Aug. 29–30, 1998).
2. DeAlvare, A.M. How crackers crack passwords or what passwords to
avoid. In Proceedings of Unix Security Workshop II. (Portland, 1990).
3. Davis, C. and Ganesan, R. BApasswd: A new proactive password
checker. In Proceedings of the National Computer Security Conference ‘93,
the 16th NIST/NSA conference. 1993, 1–15.
4. Davis, D. and Price, W. Security for Computer Networks. Wiley, Chich-
ester, 1987.
c
COMMUNICATIONS OF THE ACM December 1999/Vol. 42, No. 12 45
It is important to challenge the view that
users are never motivated to behave in a secure manner.
5. FIPS. Password Usage. Federal Information Processing Standards Pub-
lication. May 30, 1985.
6. Ford, W. Computer Communications Security: Principles, Standard Pro-
tocols and Techniques. Prentice Hall, NJ, 1994.
7. Gordon, S. Social Engineering: Techniques and Prevention. Computer
Security, 1995
8. Hitchings, J. Deficiencies of the traditional approach to information
security and the requirements for a new methodology. Computers and
Security, 14, 1995, 377–383.
9. Parker, D.B. Restating the foundation of information security. In G.C.
Gable and W.J. Caelli, Eds., IT Security: The Need for International Co-
operation. Elsevier Science Publishers, Holland, 1992.
10. Strauss, A. and Corbin, J. Basics of Qualitative Research: Grounded The-
ory Procedures and Techniques. Sage, Newbury Park, 1990.
11. Wickens, C.D. Engineering Psychology and Human Performance, 2d ed.
Harper Collins, NY, 1992.
Anne Adams (A.Adams@cs.ucl.ac.uk) is a Ph.D. candidate in the
Department of Computer Science at the University College of London.
Martina Angela Sasse (A.Sasse@cs.ucl.ac.uk) is Senior Lecturer
in the Department of Computer Science at the University College of
London.
© 1999 ACM 0002-0782/99/1200 $5.00
46 December 1999/Vol. 42, No. 12 COMMUNICATIONS OF THE ACM
The results from the studies reported have led to
the formulation of the recommendations sum-
marized here. The construction of secure passwords
can be supported through the recommendations
under “Password Content” and “Multiple Passwords.”
Recommended ways of ensuring users comply with
security mechanisms are described under “Users’
Perceptions of Security” and “Work Practices.”
Password Content
• Provide instruction and training on how to construct
usable and secure passwords. Users must be shown,
proactively, how to construct memorable passwords
that do not circumvent security mechanisms.
Provide constructive online feedback during the
password construction process, incorporating expla-
nation if/when a password is rejected as insecure.
This should also help to refresh users’ knowledge of
password design procedures.
Multiple Passwords
Asking users to remember multiple passwords
decreases memorability and increases cognitive over-
heads associated with the password mechanism.
• If multiple passwords cannot be avoided, four or five
is the maximum for unrelated, regularly used pass-
words that users can be expected to cope with. The
number is lower if passwords are used infrequently.
• Related passwords are a frequently-used technique
employed by users who have to remember multiple
passwords, but within-list interference creates
another, even worse, memory problem. Where users
have to work with a large number of different sys-
tems, single sign-on and physical security mecha-
nisms such as smart cards should be considered to
alleviate memory problems.
Users’ Perceptions of Security
System security needs to be visible and seen to be
taken seriously by the organization. Providing feed-
back during the password construction process not
only assists users in the construction of secure pass-
words, it also is an example of security in action and
increases users’ awareness of system security and its
importance.
• Inform users about existing and potential threats to
the organization’s systems and sensitivity of informa-
tion contained in them. Awareness of threats and
potential loss to the organization is the raison d’être
for security mechanisms; without it, users are likely to
perceive security mechanisms as tedious motions they
have to go through. The role of passwords in the fight
against perceived threats should be made explicit.
• Users’ awareness of the importance of security and
threats to it need to be maintained over time. This
requires a balancing act. While we advise against
“punishing” users who circumvent security mecha-
nisms, such behavior needs to be detected and chal-
lenged in a constructive manner: if security is
compromised and no action is taken, users tend to
assume that “it doesn’t matter anyway.” At the same
time, an environment giving the impression that its
security mechanisms are invincible is likely to foster
careless behavior among users, since the level of per-
ceived threats to security is low.
• Provide users with guidance as to which systems and
information are sensitive and why. The current ten-
dency is for security departments to treat all infor-
mation as equally sensitive, with as little explanation
as possible. Without such indicators and guidance,
users tend to make arbitrary judgments based on
their own—usually patchy—knowledge and experi-
ence. Explain how security levels relate to different
levels of information sensitivity.
Work Practices
Password mechanisms need to be compatible with
organizational and work procedures. Shared work and
responsibility require users to perceive that they are
using shared passwords, whereas information or work
specific to individual users should be protected by
individual passwords. c
Recommendations
... In the case of CSA and behavioral change, the persuasive approach is often recommended [95] [96] [97]. There are different reasons behind this, mainly because organizations cannot afford to continuously monitor employees' behavior and to dismiss or discipline a large number of skilled staff needed for a tough approach [98]. ...
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... • Soft approach should be used to enforce compliance or discourage non-compliance [95] [96] [97]. ...
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Security for Computer Networks 45 It is important to challenge the view that users are never motivated to behave in a secure manner
  • D Davis
  • W Price
Davis, D. and Price, W. Security for Computer Networks. Wiley, Chichester, 1987. c COMMUNICATIONS OF THE ACM December 1999/Vol. 42, No. 12 45 It is important to challenge the view that users are never motivated to behave in a secure manner. 5. FIPS. Password Usage. Federal Information Processing Standards Publication. May 30, 1985.