Human beings are natural risk assessors. Every decision we take, from when to cross the road, to what food to eat is, at least in part, based on an innate risk assessment.
People are able to do this because in the real world it is possible to see, or imagine, the consequences of an action going wrong. So, when crossing the road, people tend not to walk out in front of a moving car.
Children are the exception; they often undertake risky activities because they don’t have the experience to be able to judge whether what they’re doing is dangerous.
When using a computer, connected to the Internet, it is very difficult to judge the threat level or understand the risk because there is such a lack of information available to help inform.
Companies have spent years trying to work out the level of warning before “click-fatigue” takes over. I remember using an early iteration of ZoneAlarm’s firewall, where every minute, a pop-up would appear asking to authorise a particular app, or to tell me I was being port-scanned. While I knew the difference between allowing inbound NetBIOS and outbound POP3 access, the vast majority of people don’t. Nor do they know the significance of being port-scanned, having their anti-virus block a Trojan horse or what issues they face on an unsecured wireless network.
There needs to be a recognition that there’s a difference between technical risks that can result in the compromise of the person’s computer and associated data, and activities that lead to identity theft.
I’d like to see a simple “threat-o-meter” on computers that takes information from the various systems in place on most people’s computers, like the firewall, anti-virus software and the type of network connected to, and displays a simple coloured chart to indicate how worried the user should be.
It could be extended to take information from vulnerability scanning tools, like Secunia, or rate the severity of seeing a particular piece of malware. Add this to some basic information on the configuration of the machine, like password length, firewall configuration or whether auto-updates are enabled and it could provide really useful feedback to the user on how to reduce risk.
All of this information is about the context of the device. Most users don’t want to be information security professionals.