ewuehler writes "I don't think I've ever heard a security application, be it a consumer anti-virus application or an enterprise IPS application, described as "user-friendly" or "easy to use". When I read the title of the O'Reilly book Security and Usability: Designing Secure Systems That People Can Use, I took the bait and requested a copy for review. The title could also double as my current job description, so I was equally interested from a "job education" point of view. The book is a collection of (mostly) academic articles, grouped in sections and chapters. Each article/chapter is written by different authors; from Bruce Tognazzini who founded Apple's Human Interface Group to Blake Ross of Firefox fame to names previously unknown to me. Read on for ewuehlers' review.
|Security and Usability|
|author||Edited by Lorrie Faith Cranor & Simson Garfinkel|
|summary||Designing Secure Systems That People Can Use|
Along with the variety of authors, their backgrounds are equally diverse. The majority of the articles come from academia, with a few corporate names and open source authors. While not exclusively US authors, the majority of the articles come from US institutions. Generally, I would expect the "new author every chapter" approach to be a distraction, but the editors have done a good job at grouping the articles and cross-referencing chapters where appropriate. However, I did not find this a cover-to-cover read, the book lends itself well to "flipping and skipping" around.
The editors claim the goal of the book is "first for researchers in the field of security of usability, then for students, and finally for professionals." While I fit in the "professionals" category (not a term I'd use, but I had to pick one of the three), I found the information very helpful and educational with respect to my current job. With a majority of the chapters coming from an academic perspective, there is room for debate and interpretation of the conclusions. For example, several chapters discuss the fallibility of passwords, making it obvious the issue of password security is not just simply whether or not to write them down.
The book is divided into six parts. The first, Realigning Usability and Security, introduces the premise of the book. These five chapters discuss the importance of usability when designing security applications. It is well known that the human element is "the weakest link in the chain" of system security. For example, "Kevin Mitnick revealed that he hardly ever cracked a password, because it 'was easier to dupe people into revealing it' by employing a range of social engineering techniques. He points out that to date, attackers have paid more attention to the human element in security than security designers have." The implication being the less usable the security, the less likely it will be used correctly, no matter how good it actually is. The chapters go on to describe different processes for designing usable secure systems and applications.
The Authentication Mechanisms section discusses the usability requirements around passwords and other authentication techniques. The information in this section dealt more with implementation than theory as compared to the other sections. The expected chapters covering the prevailing forms of authentication; text passwords, challenge questions, graphical passwords, and biometrics are there. I found most interesting the chapter Identifying Users from Their Typing Patterns. This refers to "keystroke biometrics" which "seeks to identify individuals by their typing characteristics." The concept has been around for a while and first suggested for identification in 1975. (Random fact I found interesting, it finds its roots in 19th century telegraph operators who could often identify each other by listening to the rhythm of each individual's Morse code keying pattern.) Despite the fact that the concept has been around for quite a while, it does not seem to appear much on the authentication mechanism radar.
Secure Systems is the "make or break" section covering the secure user experience. These chapters cover things such as fighting "phishing" at the user interface, making PKI easy, and "deleting" files vs. really deleting files. One of the more interesting chapters looks at security tools and practices based on ethnographic field studies. While ethnography (the study of customs of individual peoples and cultures) initially does not sound like a "security or usability" issue, it is used (and the author claims quite effectively) to understand "the work practices of computer users in context, informing the design of computer systems to better suit their needs."
The remaining sections discuss usability of products, for which the chapter titles are description enough. Overall, I found the book useful. The variety of authors and subject matter made it easy to skip around and choose what piqued my interest at the time. Along with the academic feel of the book, each chapter is generally descriptive enough to get an idea as to what subject matter will be covered. While the book's target is "researchers and students" first, as a "professional" working for a security company, I found it helped me better explain the pros and cons of these topics to the less technical people I work with every day. I'd recommend it to anyone involved with the usability of security applications and systems."
You can purchase Security and Usability from bn.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.