Security warnings that fail to be helpful: Who are you trying to confuse?

Warning: This file may contain malicious code, by executing it your system may be compromised.

If your average user is a computer security professional, this warning, found in a web application for corporate intranets, may be appropriate.  But does the average person want to understand the concepts of ‘malicious code’ or a ‘compromised’ system?

Wouldn’t they rather just be gently reminded that you can’t trust every file that you download on the web?

Let’s consider for a second that a user sees the original warning and doesn’t ignore it.  They may ask, ‘what is malicious code?’  Well, it is code, erm …  Well, computer programs are written in what’s called code … and sometimes that code might be erm … written to do bad things to your computer.  If they are not confused enough already they might try and ask what a compromised system is.  And no, it doesn’t really have much to do with a ‘compromise’ on anyone’s part.

If you really want to scare people, you could at least use terms that are more likely to be widely understood, like ‘files may contain viruses!’  ‘Be careful!’

Writing language that people are likely to understand is not dumbing down.  It would be dumbing down if you removed some of the most relevant and important details from your message, leaving your users feeling cheated because details were withheld.  But in this case, the fact that software is made up of code, and some code may be a bit nefarious, or the concept of a compromised system, detracts from the most important detail of the message, which is that it might not be safe to trust the file you are downloading.  There are also some more clear, more concise alternatives, such as the word ‘virus’.  This word has come to collectively signify everything nasty that you could let loose on your computer without meaning to.

Telling people not to get phished

If you provide users with a password, you should probably think about telling them how to keep their password safe.  Teaching users how to avoid being tricked into giving away their account data – being ‘phished’ – can be difficult.

Social engineering is a method of obtaining access to a secured system by exploiting a person’s trust.  It consists of deceiving a person into granting access to a system by some sort of pretense.  For example, let’s say I receive a rather desperate sounding phone call from an intern over in IT who has screwed up and lost their password and needs desperately to fix some problem for their boss.  They know I have an account and are hoping I would be so kind to log in for them, something which I might be happy to do for a colleague.  However, the person on the phone is not an intern in IT at all, and doesn’t even work for the company.  What’s more, the second I have given them access via my own username and password, all of the security precautions are now absolutely useless; the attacker has gained access to the system they wanted to access.  What if they pretended to be working at the bank?  They might goad me into letting them empty my bank account.

A second example of a social engineering attack is to exploit a person’s guilt – to make the person believe that they have been caught doing something wrong and may get in a lot of trouble if they do not cooperate.  This ‘cooperation’ may involve handing over their personal details.  This kind of attack can even work if the victim did not do anything wrong; the act of being ‘accused’ can put someone into a defensive state.  The desire to cover up any wrongdoing they have been accused of may distract them from the fact they are being conned.

The term phishing is used to describe such attacks when they are done over a message service, such as over email or text messages.  Phishing is also often done on a large scale; a would-be attacker sends an email to perhaps thousands of people pretending to be from the IT department, or a bank, or something, hoping that at least one person will fall for the scheme.  Some such schemes are wildly inventive, while there are just as many that are stock standard: ‘we need to confirm your account details’, or ‘we need to verify that your account is active’.

From the point of view of anybody involved in computer security, the fact that such attacks are so effective is depressing.  They are effective for many reasons.

One reason such attacks are effective is that, like with any security precaution, it is as weak as its weakest point.  In a large organisation in which lots of people have access to a system, only one person needs to slip up and accidentally give their username and password to the wrong person in order for the system to be compromised.

Another reason is that the users of a system may, being less confident with technology, be naturally inclined to trust and be a little fearful of somebody who both seems to know a lot more about technology and is in a position of authority; for example, someone from an IT department, or law enforcement, or who has access to their bank account.  The consideration as to whether or not the person who contacted them is legitimate takes second place to the desire to comply with this person who seems so much more knowledgeable about the system.

It may also be that people don’t realise that computer security does not stop at some unseen attacker trying to guess or steal your password; that in large part an attacker can just walk right up to you and ask for it.

So, what do we tell the users?

Systems administrators often use the phrase ‘we will never ask for your password’.  This is a good message, because it at least signals to users that there may be nefarious motivations behind someone offical asking you to confirm your password.

However, in most cases where someone is duped into giving their account information, they actually believe the person who has contacted them is legitimate.  The phrase ‘we will never ask for your password’ can quickly develop exceptions to the rule; an attacker might say ‘Oh, but our systems are down and we have to log people in manually today.’  As it is coming from a person genuinely believed to be legitimate, such an exception is easily accepted to be true both because it is plausible, and because the victim trusts the attacker to know more about the issue than they do.

I think that users should be instructed that if they are ever asked for their password, even by genuine system administrators, they should not give it over the phone or in reply to the email.  Instead, the receiver should call back the company on the known correct phone number and then give the password.  Let’s say that I call you up and tell you that we are in the process of deleting unused accounts and we need your password to confirm whether your account is used or not.  If you truly believe that my story is legitimate, you may ignore the advice that we never ask you for your password, because my story seems like a plausible reason for an exception to the rule.  But if you have been told that you should always call me back when asked for a password, you may be less likely to be convinced by my insistence that that isn’t necessary.  I might say that you won’t be able to call me back if you tried, or that the matter is urgent, but this may raise more red flags.

In terms of email phishing, too, we can instruct users never to click through a link to a site on which they have an account; instead, should they wish to visit the site they should type the site address or name into their browser.

Whether this is all effective is speculation, and it must still be remembered that no matter how security conscious an organisation is as a whole, it only takes one weak link: one uninformed or absent-minded person to slip-up and allow a breach of security.

RSS feeds not fit for human consumption

It’s not feeds that I have a problem with, just using the term ‘RSS feeds’ or ‘RSS’ to describe them.

The term ‘RSS’ is hairy to begin with.  It isn’t sure if it should stand for ‘Really Simple Syndication’, ‘Rich Site Summary’ or ‘RDF Site Summary’.  That third one, with the nested acronym, is particularly hideous.  Passable for people who work with RDF perhaps, but that isn’t many people these days.  Besides which, ‘syndication’, and ‘site summary’ just don’t seem to convey the right idea to me.  They don’t reach out and tell me about grabbing headlines and bits of articles from a site and viewing them in other ways.  ‘Site Summary’ is a fairly vague term which could just as easily refer to a website’s ‘About Us’ page, and ‘Syndication’ is not really what feeds are used for these days.

Then there’s the issue that not all feeds are RSS, and not even all RSS is RSS.  RSS is a name used by two separate, competing and incompatible formats (or more if you count previous versions which are not forwards-compatible).  RSS is therefore not only useless in referring to the concept of a feed, but it’s useless in referring to a particular format of feed.  Yet another format is called Atom – not RSS at all.  The term ‘RSS’ unfairly excludes other implementations of the same concept.

Feeds are being increasingly used by web users due in part to better integration of feed readers or subscription mechanisms for feeds into browsers.  But along with this we need to use an appropriate name for them.

I am a fan of the term ‘web feeds’.  Firefox 2.0 used the term ‘feed’ as in ‘subscribe to this feed’.  The upcoming Firefox 3.0 gets more specific by calling them ‘web feeds’.  Internet Explorer 7.0 simply calls them ‘feeds’.  Opera 9.x muddies things by alternating between the terms ‘feeds’, ‘subscriptions’ and even ‘newsfeeds’.  And last but not least, Safari 3.1 refers to them as ‘RSS’.  Not even ‘RSS feeds’ – just ‘RSS’.

Google Reader simply calls them ‘subscriptions’ as far as I can tell, which is a decent term.  In other locations Google also uses the term ‘feeds’.  Wikipedia’s main page about feeds is now called ‘Web feed’.

With the exception of Safari, then, the major browsers and the other companies I mentioned have all opted to avoid the technically vague and misleading ‘RSS’ term and go with a more general term for the concept, with ‘feed’ by far the most popular, followed by ‘subscription’ and trailed by variants upon the word ‘feed’ such as ‘web feed’ or ‘newsfeed’.

So, is ‘feed’ a suitable term?  The word itself doesn’t describe the function; feed could easily be something I give to an animal.  The usage of the word seems to come from the context of radio or television broadcasting, where a ‘feed’ is some content that has been sourced or ‘streamed’ from another network.  It’s not an obvious link, to me at least, but once realised the analogy holds up.  I can subscribe to a feed of content sourced from another website.

What is certain is that the term ‘RSS’ really has to go.  It isn’t specific enough to be used as a technical term because it could refer to one of multiple competing formats.  At the same time, it isn’t inclusive enough as a general term as there are feeds that are not actually using any RSS-named technology.  With the exception of Safari, the term ‘RSS’ is not exposed to end users in any of the major web browsers, which instead opt for the more general ‘feed’ or ‘subscription’.  Most of all, it’s a confusing, alienating three letter acronym that doesn’t become more self-explanatory after expanding it into any of its many alternative backronyms.

The other way to be anonymous online

Ever been embarrassed by the sorts of things people could find out about you just by using Google?  I guess I had thought it was a problem affecting most people who use the web a bit, or whose friends do, until it occurred to me that for some particular people this isn’t a problem.

These are the people with names so common that it is impossible to tell them from the thousands of other web kiddies with the same name.  My name, my real name, is fairly unique.

What if you have a really unusual name?  Well, you could use a psuedonym that’s really innane, like James Connor.  Or Peter Smith.   Or you could anglicise your name: use the more common English name that is similar to yours.

Being overseas

I’m keeping an eye on you guys, the other day 63 of you viewed a page on this blog, or rather one of you viewed 63 pages. That’s a lot more than the one or two page views per day I usually get.

I’ve gone on my first ever overseas trip – New Zealand. It’s an appropriate first step, and I consider it the very first journey of many. It’s not too far away, and people speak the same language here, and practically even the same accent, with some amusing exceptions.

I gotta go and eat and look at museums and sights.