User Security

A friend of mine forwarded me a link to a provocative paper by Microsoft Research that called into question whether the security advice provided to users for their online activities is useful based on a risk-reward calculation. The link and the PDF document can be found here.

At first glance I thought that the paper was doing harm by dismissing user security as simply not worth attempting, but that is not the point. The point is that the advice provided to users is often hysterical and out of touch with the real world. This is something I have believed for a long time. So rather than just say,
“yes, that is right, we are screwed”, I want to offer up the advice (and mandates) that my own employees and family get when dealing with the security aspects of online security. Here are my Rules of the Road if you will.

  1. The password to my network must NEVER be used for anything else. Violating this rule is worth your job.
  2. If your password is long enough then you never have to change it, except of course if it is known to be compromised. My password to my domain is over 50 characters and it is a pass phrase so since I have never told it to anyone, never written it down, never used it anywhere else, I feel no need to change it regularly (I do change it over time, but not monthly or even quarterly).
  3. You should type in web sites yourself rather than click on links. If your bank sends you an email that something is wrong or they need to talk to you either open a new browser and type in the bank’s URL and login that way or call the bank using the number on the back of your credit card or on your last statement. Phishing is the biggest trap out there and always being suspicious of every link in every email is the best defense unless you are a security expert with alot of knowledge of TCP/IP (hint, if you didn’t understand any of that you are not that expert).
  4. When in doubt close the browser (and if you like for good measure open up task manager and kill all browser processes).
  5. Have a password plan. For me there are 5 levels of passwords. Level 1 is for sites I just don’t care about, but need a password anyways. I use a low security password but a password none the less. It is over 7 characters and has a number in it. Level 2 is for sites that I would not want a stranger browsing as me, but are not a risk to my reputation or my finances. Level 3 are sites like social network sites where I would face some embarrassment if someone hijacked it, but not financial loss. Level 4 sites are things like banking and I have very few of these and while according to my rules I could reuse passwords on this level I choose not to. Level 5 is of course the password for my business network and it stands alone.
  6. If you find the need to write down your passwords then either get a password keeper program like whisper32 (there are many to choose from). These programs are not hacker proof, but the hacker needs to get pretty deep to be able to even start attacking these kinds of programs.
  7. As the X-Files taught us, “trust no one! If someone asks for your password for anything stop talking to them no matter how the topic arrives.

Those are the highlights. I don’t try to make users security experts, but I seek to help them exercise some best practices. I am thinking of making this into a presentation for user groups and expanding it out with examples and much more detail.

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