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Unless we do something proactively, social engineering’s impact is expected to keep getting worse as people’s reliance on technology increases and as more of us are forced to work from home.

Contact tracing, superspreaders, flattening the curve — concepts that in the past were the domain of public health experts are now familiar to people the world over. These terms also help us understand another virus, one that is endemic to the virtual world: social engineering that come in the form of spear-phishing, pretexting, and fake-news campaigns.

As quickly as the coronavirus began its spread, news reports cautioned users of social engineering attacks that tout fake cures and contact-tracing apps. This was no accident. In fact, there are a number of parallels between the human transmission of COVID-19 and social engineering outbreaks:

  1. Just like coronavirus transmits from person to person through respiratory droplets, social engineering also passes from users through infected computing devices to other users. Because of this transmission similarity, just as infected people, by virtue of their physical proximity to many others, act as superspreaders for COVID-19, some technology users act likewise. These tend to be people with many virtual friends or those subscribing to many online services who consequently have a hard time discerning a real notification or communication from one of these personas or services from a fake one. Such users are prime targets for social engineers looking for a victim who can provide a foothold into an organization’s computing networks.
  2. The vast majority of people infected with this coronavirus have mild to moderate symptoms. The same is the case with most victims of social engineering because hackers usually lurk imperceptibly as they make their way through corporate networks. They often go undetected for months — on average, at least 101 days— showing no signs or symptoms.
  3. Just as no one has immunity from COVID-19, no one is immune against social engineering. By now everyone, all over the world, has been targeted by social engineers, and many — trained users, IT professionals, cybersecurity experts, and CEOs — have fallen victim to a spear-phishing attack.
  4. COIVD 19’s outcomes are worse for people who have prior health conditions and for people who are older. Similarly, the outcomes of social engineering are worse for users with poor computing habits and poor technical capabilities. Many of these tend to be senior citizens and retired individuals who lack updated operating systems, patches that protect them from infiltration, and access to managed security services.
  5. Finally, personal hygiene — hand washing, use of masks, social isolation — is the primary protection against coronavirus infection. Likewise, for protecting against social engineering, digital hygiene — protecting devices, keeping updated virus protections and patches, and being careful when online — is the only protection that everyone from the FBI to INTERPOL has in their arsenal.

But beyond these similarities, social engineering outbreaks are actually harder to control than coronavirus infections:

1. Social engineering infections pass through devices wirelessly, making it hard to contact-trace infection sources, isolate machines, and contain them.

2.  There are well-established scientific processes that the medical community has developed to identify knowledge gaps about coronavirus. This helps researchers focus. In contrast, even the fundamentals of social engineering — such as when it’s correct to call an attack a breach or a hack — lacks clarity. It’s hard to do research in an area when there is no consensus on what the problem should be called or where it begins and ends.

3. While human hygiene is well researched, digital hygiene practices aren’t. For instance, in 2003, NIST developed password hygiene guidelines asking that all passwords contain letters and special characters and are changed every 90-days. The guideline was developed studying how computers guessed passwords, not how humans remembered them. Consequently, users the world over reused passwords, wrote them down on paper to aid their memory, or blindly entered them on phishing emails that mimicked various password-reset emails — until 2017, when these problems were recognized and the policy was reversed.

4. Evidence points to those who have recovered from coronavirus having at least short-term immunity to it. In contrast, organizations that have had at least one significant social engineering attack tend to be attacked again within the year. Because hackers learn from every attack, this suggests that the odds of being breached by social engineering actually increase with each subsequent attack.

5. Our response to COVID-19 is informed by reporting throughout the healthcare system. Unfortunately, there is no similar reporting mechanism for social engineering. For this reason, a hacker can conduct an attack in one city and replicate it in an adjoining city, all using the same malware that could have easily been defended against had someone notified others. We saw this trend play out in ransomware attacks that crippled computing systems in Louisiana’s Vernon Parish in November 2019, quickly followed by six other parishes, and continuing through the rest of the state in February 2020.

Because of these factors, the economic impact of social engineering continues to grow. There has been a 67% increase in security breaches in the past five years, and last year companies were expected to spend $110 billion globally to protect against it. This makes social engineering one of the biggest threats to the worldwide economy outside of natural disasters and pandemics.

Just as we are fighting the pandemic, we must coordinate our efforts to combat social engineering. Without it, there will be no vaccine or cure. To this end, we must develop intraorganizational reporting portals and early-warning systems to warn other organizations of breaches. We also need federal funding for basic research on the science of cybersecurity along with the development of evidence-based digital hygiene initiatives that provide best practices that take into account the user and their use cases. Finally, we must enlist social media platforms for tracing the superspreaders in their users, and develop open source awareness and training initiatives to protect them and the cyber-vulnerable from future attacks.


Unless we do something proactively, social engineering’s impact is expected to keep getting worse as people’s reliance on technology increases and as more of us are forced to work from home, away from the protected IT enclaves of organizations. We may in the end win the fight against the coronavirus, but the war against social engineering has yet to begin.


*A version of this piece appeared in Dark Reading:

Photo by Corinne Kutz

Two out of three Americans with jobs are already working from home because of the pandemic. Many will have to continue if pandemic reoccurs. But millions are unable to and are without jobs, because of significant barriers imposed by technology, regulation, and organizational preparedness.

One technological barrier is the lack of universal high-speed Internet connectivity. People at home today run multiple devices for everything from making video calls to streaming entertainment, participating in meetings, and doing classwork. This requires fiber-based Internet access that allows gigabyte-speeds rather than older cable and telephone based connectivity.

But outside of major American cities, most of us are served by poor quality and lower speed Internet services built on outdated infrastructure. The reason is that in most market areas, legislative barriers have limited competition, keeping the cable and telephone companies as virtual monopolies that can charge higher prices whilst continuing to invest little in improving product quality.  Because of this, many in rural areas, the urban poor, and consumers in many smaller urban areas either don’t have good access, cannot afford it, or have limited choice.

Another technology barriers to remote work is the outdated software and operating systems that many companies utilize, which are incompatible with what people use at home. For instance, close to 82% of medical imaging devices in US hospitals still run Windows 7 and XP-based systems. There are about 200 million computers worldwide still running such outdated systems including 30,000 machines in Germany’s local government offices and 50,000 in Ireland’s healthcare system. The reason for such practices is legacy programs, those that can only run on older operating systems, that many organizations continue to support. But, because of such systems, people whose work relies on such older programs cannot work on them remotely from their updated computing devices at home.

Yet another barrier comes from data protection laws. From HIPPA that governs electronic patient health information (ePHI) access to the European Union’s data portability laws, various regulations protect user data from cyber criminals by restricting access to them outside of secure work computers and servers. But these laws were formulated in the pre-pandemic era, where employees had the luxury of working from offices. Layered on such laws are organizational IT policies, which often impose their own restrictions on how employees can access data.

Photo by Glen Carrie

But it is because of such restrictions that Facebook’s content moderators all over the globe cannot presently work from home—which has also reduced their ability to quell misinformation and online scams from going viral. Similarly, concerns of cyber breaches have led organizations to require their employees use virtual private network (VPN) services when connecting from home. Using a VPN is hard enough for users with poor technology skills, but even for the technologically adept, it lowers Internet speeds, especially when there is a signification increase in the load on VPN servers, as is now the case. Thus, regulatory concerns cause restrictions and delays that make for a frustrating remote work experience.

The final factor limiting remote work is cyber risk from the user. While many users can be trusted with remote data access, many others cannot. This is not just because some people have lower technical skills but also because many users’ digital hygiene levels are unknown. This is a pivotal issue because regulations such as HIPAA require organizations to conduct risk assessments to address vulnerabilities from remote data access. But this is easier said than done. In an era when the opening a single phishing email could launch ransomware that could jump from home to work networks and cripple the entire organization’s systems, the risk to the enterprise is not just from the employee working at home, but from their entire family. Hence, organizations would rather limit who can work remotely than risk a devastating enterprise-wide lockout.

Photo by Corinne Kutz

Making it possible for more of us to work remotely from home will require a concerted efforts from the government, educational institutions, and organizations.

The starting point to this is improving residential Internet access. The digital divide is no longer about just having Internet access, but having universal access to fiber at an affordable price. With 5G years away from being universal, we have to reimagine competition among Internet providers. This involves removing the legislative restrictions that prohibit competition among providers and, in some cases, fiber networks being developed by municipalities. A good example is Chattanooga, Tennessee, where the local government developed its own fiber network, which not only made gigabyte speed service locally available for a competitive price but also recovered the setup costs and led to a technology start-up boom in short order.

Next, organizations must plan on developing an agile workforce. Most current organizations support a fraction of their workforce’s remote work needs. For instance, the US Airforce VPN system is built to support only a quarter of its 275,000 civilian workers and contractors. Organizations can invert this by investing in virtualization to run legacy software, allowing more employees to bring their own devices (BYOD), and moving towards a cloud-based infrastructure. This will create the ability to run legacy software on remote machines while also quickly upgrading the technology being used within organizations.

The final issue is reducing cyber risk from users. Models for this already exist in the systems used for evaluating financial credit scores and giving automobile driver’s licenses, which were developed for similar reasons—to estimate risk and ensure that people meet minimal standards of performance and safety. Just as we do with driver’s licenses, we need to establish federal standards for user risk assessment that mandates cyber safety training and awards users with a personal cyber risk score. Cyber safety training must begin from K-12, when most already use computing systems, and become part of standard university curricula. Also, the risk scores should be portable between jobs, accessible to employers, and users should be capable of improving them through additional certifications provide by for-profit training companies. With everyone trained, the overall cyber risk to organizations from users will reduce as will their concerns about remote access.

Providing better Internet access, creating an agile workforce, and mandating cyber security training will help us combat not just this pandemic’s reoccurrence but also any future natural or manmade catastrophe. We have been saved from a complete economic meltdown by a technology—the Internet—that was built in anticipation of a nuclear fallout that thankfully never happened. Thanks to such forward thinking, we today have the capacity to continue working, teaching, even performing medical diagnosis online. Building capacity must likewise be done years if not decades in advance and we must prepare for a future where more people can continue working from home.




* A version of this post appeared here:

Last week, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio warned residents of a widespread Twitter and text-message circulated misinformation campaign falsely claiming that Manhattan was under quarantine.

Around this time, Attorney General Barr and U.S. Attorneys from various states were also  warning residents of spear phishing emails, fake websites, local phone area code or neighbor- spoofing calls, and text messages making all manner of fake claims. Some of them were offering free COVID-19 tracking apps only to inject malware; others were spoofing websites such as Johns Hopkins University’ website and providing false information; some others were emailing, calling, and texting residents offering free iPhones, groceries, treatments, cures—and whatever else—preying on our collective anxieties during this pandemic.

And this wasn’t just happening in the US. Similar attacks being reported in Australia and the European Union.

There is actually a common thread that connects all these attacks. They are all part of what I call the Internet’s Dark Triad: hacking, misinformation, and trolling– three types of attacks that usually feed off each other and, when working in concert, are especially potent.           

We saw the triad at work together during our last presidential election when the Russians hacked into the DNC, used the stolen data to seed misinformation websites, and organized a trolling campaign to reframe, retweet, and relentlessly disseminate the information throughout the US.

While it is easy to think of each of these types in isolation, thinking of them as parts of a whole makes it easier to appreciate their impact–and more importantly, deal with them.

For one, the triad feeds on fake profiles on social media, neighbor phone numbers, and email addresses. For instance, in Erie County, NY, someone impersonated a local TV station and tweeted fake news about the virus. Such attacks are very easy to foment, given the easy access everyone has to social media and VoIP services.

We have left the responsibility of curating content and profiles to individual media organizations, almost all of who have resorted to internal processes. Their process involves some automation but, given the nuanced and equivocal nature of content, they largely rely on human curators, who they have employed by the thousands.

But even during normal circumstances, as in the days before the pandemic reached our shores, the process was found lacking. Now, many content curators are at home and most aren’t even allowed to do their work because of the offensive, sensitive, and graphic nature of content they deal with. This means at the time when social media matters the most for users, its content is most vulnerable to misuse.

Instead of leaving this problem in the hands of individual social media organizations who are all creating organizational silos of vital information, we need these organizations to come together and coordinate their efforts. Media organizations should create a centralized data repository in which they pool their profile and content data. This database should be accessible to researchers and other media organizations, especially the regional and local media house that don’t have the depth in technical skills or manpower to keep a track of ongoing attacks. Having a centralized repository of profiles and phones being spoofed would allow us to identify attacks before they become widespread and to inform local agencies and residents.

Two, in his press release, Attorney General Barr asked Americans to report COVID-19 related cyber-attacks to the National Center for Disaster Fraud (by calling 1-866-720-5721 or by e-mailing But there are already several other federal and local agencies collecting similar reports. This includes the FTC and the purpose-built reporting portal of the FBI’s IC3, among many others.

Having users report on various portals needlessly duplicates efforts, not to mention wastes resources and confuses users. These efforts also need to be unified. Just as social media profiles and phone numbers are reused, so are spear phishing email accounts, their persuasive ploys, and the malware they carry. Centrally collecting reports and developing a consumer-focused information portal allows us to track attacks, identify the ones that are most virulent, and provide support to users—all of who are working from home networks, without the benefit of professional IT support.

Finally, at a time of anxiety, people turn to others for information and social support. It is, therefore, our responsibility to ensure that we don’t forward along false information—and give the oxygen necessary for the Dark Triad to function. It is important that we become vigilant about the information we encounter on our media feeds. We need to check the sources of information we receive, search online for other corroborating information, report malicious activity we encounter, and become responsible content curators for others in our sphere of influence.

We will, with our collective efforts, overcome this virus. For now, it’s our individual responsibility to ensure that neither the virus nor the Dark Triad succeeds.






*A version of this post appeared here:

“Users should use a range of letters, numbers, and special characters on their passwords and change it every 90 days.” If you are in IT, you have likely implemented this security policy. And if you are a user, you have likely endured it.

The source of this best practice suggestion is a Burr, Dodson, and Polk (2004)[i] NIST publication, which Microsoft and others widely publicized and implemented[ii]. Only, this practice has many critical flaws: it forces users to come-up with difficult passwords, often, so they end up reusing passwords across services; and it makes password reset emails common—so when a phishing email comes in asking to reset a password, users are far more likely to comply. Recognizing this, NIST reversed the policy in 2017, but by then, IT managers all over the world had blindly followed the best practice for more than a decade.

Cyber hygiene practice suggestions such as this, however, do not end here. There are many more. At the broad end are suggestions such as “develop a process for software installation for end users” or the ever relevant “educate your users on good cyber behavior.” While at the specific end are ideas such as “always use a VPN when connecting to networks,”  “always look for SSL (lock) icons on webpages,” “always look for source headers in emails to find out who is sending you an email,” “always use a password vault,” “always use a good virus protection programs,” and “always apply patches and keep your system software updated.” All follow a familiar pattern albeit with varying levels of specificity: they expect the user to blindly perform an action, all the time, when online.

But are these blanket suggestions really appropriate? Are they even effective, let alone necessary to do in all cases, across all organizations, by every Internet user around the world?

Answering such questions might appear unnecessary, but there is a cost involved in asking computer users to check various parts of an email’s header for each email they receive, to use a VPN, or to manage their passwords in vaults. The costs are not just in their time but also in the technical IT resources that go into supporting such practices, not to mention the aforementioned issues of users becoming habituated in flawed practices, which could increase their vulnerability to cyber compromise.

Whenever such criticisms are raised, cyber security experts resort to conceptual analogies, drawing parallels between cyber hygiene best practices and personal hygiene, to justify their suggestions. The usual argument is along the lines of “just like washing hands, brushing teeth, or regularly taking multivitamins,” “users should do this…” and besides “just like personal hygiene, there is also no real harm in following cyber hygiene best practice guidelines.”

But if we have learnt anything from research on public health, it is that not all suggestions are good. This is the lesson from the widespread intake of multi-vitamin pills as well. While most people believe vitamins are necessary or that there is no harm in taking them, medical research disagrees. After reviewing multiple large-scale tracking studies, the medical community concluded that vitamins have little to no effect whatsoever on reducing heart disease, cancer, cognitive decline, or memory loss. In fact, some, such as vitamin E and beta-carotene supplements, are downright harmful and reduce life expectancy instead of improving life.[iii]

Of course, there are exceptional times where vitamins are good or even necessary. Certain people—pregnant women, people living in certain regions, people suffering certain health ailments—might need a course of vitamins.[iv] These conclusions are supported by research and are based on a case-by-case assessment of the person’s needs.

The same is true for cyber hygiene best practices. Not all work, but some do. But what works, and the specific instances—organizational type, use environments, use cases, and user types—need to be ascertained. These need to be empirically determined and evaluated for their need and contextual adequacy. Doing so is far better than blindly implementing hygiene practices on the advice of sundry sources, without assessing their applicability, only to realize years later that it was not only a wasted effort but that it also made the organization more vulnerable to cyber-attacks.

The paper presents a better approach. It begins by examining the basic concept of cyber hygiene, a term that is widely used but poorly understood or conceptualized. Next, the paper tracks the roots of the concept of cyber hygiene and discusses the pitfalls of comparing it to personal hygiene. Following this, the paper presents a recently developed measurement tool called the Cyber Hygiene Inventory (CHI) and discusses how it can serve as a framework for developing need based cyber hygiene practices.

What is cyber hygiene?

In early 2015, in the aftermath of the Sony Pictures Entertainment hack while writing a media article on how we can prevent cyber breaches, I was searching for a term that captured what online users could do to better protect organizations from such attacks. My search led me to a 2013 Wilson Center speech by then Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano who had used the term “cyber hygiene” in the context of cyber habits. [v] I thought the term was perfect because it helped drive home the message that protecting the Internet was every user’s personal responsibility.  I used the term in my article[vi] and in many others, with one local newscaster during an interview even commenting on the term’s simplicity and catchiness.

Thanks to its appeal, today the term is so common that a keyword search on Google returns over 33 million pages with the phrase cyber hygiene. It has appeared in public policy documents, military doctrines, congressional testimonies, media articles, research papers, and websites. All subscribe to some definition of what cyber hygiene entails and espouse all manner of best practice guidelines. Some of these guidelines target adolescents, others are for employees, some others focus on IT professionals, and still others on vulnerable populations.

But while there are many suggestions on what constitutes cyber hygiene, there is little clarity on what it does or does not entail and who it should be performed by.  This is a problem across the globe. In comparing cyber hygiene practices across member nations, the European Union Agency for Network and Information Security (ENISA) found that there was no single standard or commonly agreed upon approach to it. The report also concluded that cyber hygiene should be viewed in the same manner as personal hygiene in order to ensure the organization’s health was in optimum condition. (ENISA December 2016). ( Thus, there is no clarity on what cyber hygiene means or entails other than the view that it is something akin to personal hygiene. But while it’s unarguable that cyber hygiene is important, is it really appropriate to think of it in terms of personal hygiene?

Is Cyber Hygiene Analogous to Personal Hygiene?

The metaphorical construction of cyber hygiene as similar to personal hygiene does not stop at its definition. It even influences how cyber safety solutions are framed. For instance, many cyber security websites use examples of hand washing and multivitamin used to drive home cyber safety suggestions, such as applying virus updates and patches. Some sites go even further. One in particular, “Cyber Security is Cyber Health”[vii] equates poor heredity in people to the use of obsolete software; the lack of vaccinations to the lack of technical safeguards; and promiscuous sex with visits to unreliable websites. It makes similar conceptual leaps linking pregnancy, fetal ultrasound, newborns, even psychological health, with some sundry facet of cyber hygiene.

Thinking in this manner adversely influences the solutions we develop. Take the case of airplane technology. Since antiquity our mental models of flying were based on avian flight because the flying capabilities of birds were visible and self-evident. From the ancient Greek fables of Daedalus and Icarus mythologizing the use of bird-like wings for human flight to 20th century attempts at fabricating aircraft’s wings that flapped, this analogous thinking stymied the development of aircraft technology for over two millennia. Figure 1 is the 1857 patent drawing of pioneering aviator Jean Marie Le Bris’s failed Artificial Albatross.[viii] It shows how the avian model proved to be a proverbial albatross in aircraft design. Thus, the analogies we use for thinking about cyber hygiene matter.

Figure 1. Patent drawing of pioneering aviator Jean Marie Le Bris’s Artificial Albatross

There is another reason for unbridling cyber hygiene from our mental models of personal hygiene. Personal hygiene does not have a downside. Washing hands or brushing teeth, unless you do it at an obsessive level, does not cause problems to people. But using a certain app or an operating system thinking it is protective could enhance risk, especially if we trust such systems. For instance, telling people to believe that “an SSL website is secure” is just bad policy not only because many fraudulent websites also have legitimate SSL certificates but also because users conflate security with safety, wrongly thinking secure sites are authentic sites.[ix] Making such wrongful thinking even more problematic is the fact that more and more phishing websites—two out of three according to a recent Anti Phishing Working Group (APWG) report—have SSL certificates.[x]  Users need not compulsively enact behaviors based on such flawed beliefs. All it takes is for them to enter their credentials on what they purport is an encrypted page on one of these phishing websites for a breach to occur.

The same problem plagues us if we place too much credence in a solution, again, something we do not really think about in our physical hygiene. Believing that a virus protection solution is protective or that all its updates that appear as notifications are necessary, making users blindly apply patches. Unfortunately, many social engineering attacks mimic software and virus protection updates, which users wittingly download and apply because they have been conditioned to behave as such. In this way, cyber hygiene practices can make users more rather than less vulnerable.

But there is yet another important difference between the personal and cyber realms stemming from what they protect. Personal hygiene protects the human body from chance infections through routine preventative actions. The human body is, however, already resilient. Even without many modern hygiene solutions such as hand soap, humans can ward off many threats. The central reason for this is defenses against most germs and viruses we have evolved over millennia. Our sensory organs have evolved follicles, hair, nails, eyelashes, cilia, and mucous membranes that trap most intrusion. Our internal organs likewise have also evolved complex immune responses that work independently of our need to manage or control it. These internal and external defenses work in tandem and independently when needed and are further protected by the human brain (such as when someone impulsively swats a stinging bug). Thanks to these complex systems, most of us can live relatively long disease-free lives with minimal need for modern medicine.

In contrast, while technology is collectively capable of highly sophisticated computational tasks, its core components are dumb circuits that built without any effective protection and often flawed at their very core. Take computer processing chips and memory cells, the computer’s internal organs, for example. Last year, the identification of Meltdown and Spectre vulnerabilities demonstrated that nearly every computer chip manufactured in the past two decades have critical flaws in their algorithmic structures, rendering them vulnerable to various exploits. Similarly, dynamic memory cells or D-RAMs are also vulnerable to leaking their electrical charges as they interact—called the rowhammer effect[xi]—which can be exploited in a D-RAM attack to get root access to systems.

The same is the case for the “sensory organs” of computing devices:  touchpads, microphones, cameras, and input devices. Each is easily corruptible using simple keyloggers and other programs. Layered on these are many apps, all using different schemes and privileges that interface with the system’s internal organs. Some of these apps are programmed poorly, others are rouge programs built to affect compromises by co-opting their privileges, while still others can be manipulated by rouge programmers using malware that can infect everything from the sensory organs of the computer all to way to its internals. Finally, we have users with varying skills who utilize these systems and programs on them in a multitude of ways.

Making things particularly different, a single computing attack can cripple multiple layers of computing without needing to evolve a compromise for each layer. As a case in point, a single phishing email with a malware payload can trick users, circumvent many end-point security protections, and enter the core of a system and gain a foothold. In contrast, even influenza, one of the most lethal and persistent biological viruses, which kills over 600,000 people globally each year, requires a complex series of interactions. Over two-thirds of deaths from it are because of indirect causes such as organ failure.[xii]

Thanks to all this, human hygiene practices can accommodate a wide amount of variance in outcomes. In contrast, errors in individual cyber hygiene practices can have a geometric increase in overall risk because the system risks exponentially heighten at every iteration. For instance, a 10 percent failure rate in hand-washing rates does little to increase infection from most diseases. In contrast, a 10 percent failure rate in SSL certificates could lead to enhanced risk by itself. If these certificates are used in email-based phishing attacks with a 10 percent relevance rate (users for whom the content is relevant), on an email network that allowed 10 percent of these emails through, with just 10 percent of the users clicking and enabling the malware, the probability of a breach goes up to 34 percent.[1] These are conservative probabilities because in actuality 30 to 70 percent of phishing emails are usually opened (Caputo et al. 2013)[xiii] and there are many rouge SSL certificates and pages on the Internet.[xiv] Thus, each potential failure magnifies the overall failure rate, something which seldom occurs in human beings because of the way evolution has helped us defend ourselves.

What is clear from this is that hygiene in health and cyber hygiene are not analogous. Differences stem from the nature of computing, online threats, and users—all of which cumulatively increase the risk of a breach. Because of this, we cannot afford the same leeway with cyber hygiene that we can with personal hygiene. We need greater precision in how we define cyber hygiene and identify policies.

So what is user cyber hygiene?

Until recently, there have been few academic attempts at defining cyber hygiene. By comparing various definitions, through interviews with IT personnel, CSOs, CIOs, and using a quantitative scale development approach, Vishwanath et al. (2019) developed a conceptual definition and a multi-item inventory for measuring cyber hygiene. They define cyber hygiene as the cyber security practices that online consumers should engage in to protect the safety and integrity of their personal information on their Internet enabled devices from being compromised in a cyber-attack (Vishwanath et al. 2019).[xv]

At the operational or measurement end, user cyber hygiene comes from the confluence of four user-centric factors: awareness, knowledge, technical capacity, and the enactment of cyber security practices. Awareness and knowledge make up the cognitive factors of familiarity and understanding. Technical capacity pertains to the availability of technologies where necessary. Finally, enactment makes up the behavioral dimension and is the utilization factor. Effective user cyber hygiene occurs at the confluence of these four factors: when users, aware of what needs to be done, are knowledgeable about it, have the required technologies and know-how to achieve it, and enact it as and when necessary.

Vishwanath et al. (2019) also developed a framework that can be applied across multiple organizational and user environments. It is organized using a multi-dimensional inventory called the Cyber Hygiene Inventory (CHI).[xvi] The CHI comprises 20-items or questions that tap into five dimensions of user cyber hygiene. These dimensions are organized using the acronym SAFETY, where S pertains to Storage and Device hygiene, A signifies Authentication and Credential hygiene, F signifies Facebook and Social Media hygiene, E pertains to Email and Messaging, T for Transmission hygiene, and Y stands for “you” signifying the users responsibility in ensuring cyber hygiene. Each item or question in the inventory measures a best practice or a cyber safety related thought or action. While the inventory has a finite set of 20-items, it allows for the addition of questions that are often necessary to capture contextual or organization-specific practices.

Before delving into the details of the inventory, some facets of the inventory need highlighting. First, the framework provided by CHI is broad and technology agnostic. This has two advantages: it allows the CHI to be applied across any organization, user group, and even residents of an area. Second, having a broad inventory makes it possible to use it across platforms, technologies, applications, over different points of time even as different platforms and functionalities evolve. Third, we can measure most questions in the CHI using standard survey approaches. Fourth, the CHI accommodates subjective and objective measurements. While knowledge, capacity, and behavioral intent, can all be measured subjectively, we can also measure them using objective measures using a knowledge test, by taking an inventory of technologies available in the organization, and by measuring actual behavior observationally. Using a combination of measurement approaches has the added advantage of eliminating confounds such as method bias from influencing the results. Finally, the CHI includes measures of cognitive and behavioral factors. This is superior to extant approaches such as using pen-testing data or training data, which only capture behavior. Thus, the CHI captures information about user related to their cyber hygiene with more granularity, accounts for more user-level influences, and allows for more valid measurement of users’ cyber safety related thoughts and behaviors.

In the ideal case, the CHI can be used to evaluate all 4 aspects of cyber hygiene—awareness, knowledge, capacity, and enactment—using a 0-5 scale. This gives each dimension a range of responses from 0 to 100, making it possible to derive a cumulative score that is easily interpretable and comparable across the inventory’s implementations. Thus, at a minimum, the score can compare awareness against knowledge, know-how, and intent among users within an organization. Using the score comes with all the usual caveats: the score is inherently ordinal but being treated as a ratio; technical know-how is contingent on IT supplying them; the responses on some enactment frequency questions are limited by the technology, application, and platform. Most of these are familiar to anyone trained in empirical social science research, and can be handled through design and analysis.

Thus, the CHI provides a baseline for IT managers not just for understanding users but also for strategic decisions. Often, IT managers hoping to implement various hygiene solutions need to determine their relative impacts and merits. In such instances, the CHI can help ascertain the strategic merits of the intervention and the values different technological solutions they plan to implement. Figure 2 provides an exemplar where 20 items were added to the CHI’s 20 and the overall 40 items were scored on 2-dimensions: their utility or security impact and the perceive ease of using the technology, two fundamental dimensions that information systems models such as the Technology Acceptance Model (Davis et al., 1989)[xvii] have shown to predict the adoption and use of technology within organizations.

Responses by a sample of IT managers within an organization were used to develop the two-dimensional map in the figure. The map presents the overall data in four dimensions, arrayed based on the utility and ease of use of each hygiene practice. The four quadrants in the map are High security significance/utility, Low enactment difficulty; Low security significance/utility, Low enactment difficulty; Low security significance/utility, High enactment difficulty; and High security significance/utility, High enactment difficulty. Based on the map, IT managers can not only quantify the perceptual importance of each cyber hygiene practice and the technology that is most closely associated with it, but also understand the relative effort in terms of resources and expected outcomes from each of them. They can thus, using this approach, strategically choose the cyber hygiene practice and technology they plan to implement.

Figure 2. Sample application of the CHI framework to make strategic decisions on organizational cyber hygiene priorities

The CHI can also be used to track the success of individual interventions and improvements in desired levels of cyber hygiene overtime. For this, IT managers can implement the CHI to compare different facets of cyber hygiene—e.g., comparing awareness with utilization at different points in time, such as before and after an intervention; or on different groups, e.g., different divisions of the same organization; or different locations, e.g., one branch of an organization serves as the control while another one in a different location serves as the target. The analysis can focus on charting the individual differences between groups and use the deviation scores or GAPs as a metric of hygiene performance. Figure 3 and 4 provide examples of such implementations. Figure 3 charts data from a single organization’s users on their relative levels of awareness, knowledge, and technical capacity across the five SAFETY dimensions of cyber hygiene. Figure 4 tracks the relative impact of training levels on cyber hygiene across users in an organization where the CHI was implemented a month before and after training.

Figure 3. Application of the CHI to assess relative gaps in perceived awareness, knowledge, and capacity

Figure 4. Application of the CHI to assess training effects in an organization.

Advantages of the CHI approach

There is no single metric for cyber hygiene, nor is there any method that can achieve any of what the CHI delivers. The extant approaches to defining cyber hygiene and creating best practices — if organizations even engage in them—remains ad hoc, with most organizations adopting practice suggestions from industry groups and other sources. The CHI serves as a baseline for understanding and developing cyber hygiene practices within organizations. It also helps evaluate, develop, assess, track, and quantify cyber hygiene and ensure improvements over time.

The same is the case with the measurement of hygiene. Most organizations do not even measure user cyber hygiene; others use proprietary approaches with underlying algorithms that remain unknown and difficult for others to use or assess. This is the case with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Continuous Diagnostic and Monitoring (CDM) program, which gives participating federal government organizations a cyber risk and hygiene score card. Their reason for the lack of transparency in the program’s scoring method is that it would end up in the hands of hackers.

That said, it is safe to say that at the user end, the only metrics that exist come from training and pen-testing. Both approaches, while appropriate, are wholly inadequate. Most use behavioral measures and fail to account for user cognition—wrongly presuming that user behavior is wholly premised on a priori thought. They also have unknown amounts of noise in the data stemming from the variance in the pen-test approaches to the specifics of the tests, its frequency, its reach, and its timing. This makes it impossible to use these metrics to compare different organizations, let alone rely on them to make judgments about an individual organization’s level of cyber readiness.

In contrast, the CHI provides a transparent approach, where organizations can use and even share their scores across the 20-items without fearing that it would expose the organization’s weaknesses to hackers. They could maintain internal records of additional items—such as specific technological safeguards and other practices—that the organization wishes to not reveal. The quantitative metric can also be used to establish a benchmark that could be improved upon when more data is shared across a sector. With more data from across the industry, industry benchmarks could be established overtime, providing a more robust standard for an organization in a sector.  Thus, the CHI provides an empirically driven, widely applicable, transparent, quantitative approach for formulating, benchmarking, and tracking user cyber hygiene within organizations.

Conclusive thoughts

The paper discussed why drawing parallels between personal hygiene and cyber is inappropriate, which might stymie the development of solutions and even increase overall user cyber risk. The paper then offered a different methodology and a mechanism for deriving cyber hygiene practice suggestions, one that is not prescriptive but instead empirically calibrated and contextually relevant. While the phrase cyber hygiene appears to have become part of the cybersecurity lexicon, we can still change how we conceptualize it. In the long run, security experts might even consider moving away from the term, replacing it with others such as Operational Security or “OPSEC,”, an area of practice developed by the US military which is more applicable in the security domain and can be applied with resorting to anolgoical leaps. OPSEC begins with the assumption that we are in an adversarial situation—a fact that is true in the domain of cybersecurity—and focuses on prioritizing information and developing approaches to ensure that those pieces of information stay protected. This shifts the focus away from global actions and their analogues in public health to tactical approaches that are grounded in adversarial defense. By re-conceptualizing how we think about cyber security, we can move away from broad practices to specific actions, and from dictating cyber hygiene practices to focus instead on protecting critical information—because after all, that is what the hackers are really after.


[1] The dependent probability is computed as (1-.90^k), where k is the number of layers of vulnerability.

[i] Burr, W. E., Dodson, D. F., & Polk, W. T. (2004). Electronic authentication guideline (NIST Special Publication 800-63 Version 1.0). Gaithersburg: National Institute of Standards and Technology.


[ii] Microsoft. (2016, August 31). Best practices for enforcing password policies. Retrieved from


[iii] Is there really any benefit to multivitamins? (n.d.). Johns Hopkins Medicine. Retrieved from

Goodman, B. (2014, February 24). Healthy adults shouldn’t take vitamin E, Beta Carotene: Expert panel. MedicineNet. Retrieved from


[iv] Scholl, T. O., & Johnson, W. G. (2000). Folic acid: Influence on the outcome of pregnancy. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 71(5), 1295S-1303S.


[v] Spiering, C. (2013, January 24). Janet Napolitano: Internet users need to practice good ‘cyber-hygiene’. Washington Examiner. Retrieved from


[vi] Vishwanath, A. (2015, February 24). Before decrying the latest cyberbreach, consider your own cyberhygiene. The Conversation. Retrieved from


[vii] Cyber security is cyber health. (n.d.). H-X Tech. Retrieved from


[viii] Early flying machines. (n.d.). Wikipedia. Retrieved from


[ix] Hassold, C. (2017, November 2). Have we conditioned web users to be phished? PhishLabs. Retrieved from


[x] Anti-Phishing Working Group. (2019). Phishing activity trends report: 3rd Quarter 2019 [PDF document]. Retrieved from


[xi] Kim, Y., Daly, R., Kim, J., Fallin, C., Lee, J. H., Lee, D., Wilkerson, C., Lai, K., & Mutlu, O. (2016). Rowhammer: Reliability analysis and security implications. ArXiV, arXiv:1603.00747.


[xii] Jabr, F. (2017, December 18). How does the flu actually kill people? Scientific American. Retrieved from


[xiii] Caputo, D. D., Pfleeger, S. L., Freeman, J. D., & Johnson, M. E. (2013). Going spear phishing: Exploring embedded training and awareness. IEEE Security & Privacy12(1), 28-38.


[xiv] Vishwanath, A. (2018, September 1). Spear phishing has become even more dangerous. CNN. Retrieved from


[xv] Vishwanath, A., Neo, L. S., Goh, P., Lee, S., Khader, M., Ong, G., & Chin, J. (2020). Cyber hygiene: The concept, its measure, and its initial tests. Decision Support Systems128, 113160.


[xvi] Vishwanath, A., Neo, L. S., Goh, P., Lee, S., Khader, M., Ong, G., & Chin, J. (2020). Cyber hygiene: The concept, its measure, and its initial tests. Decision Support Systems128, 113160.


[xvii] Davis, F. D., Bagozzi, R. P., & Warshaw, P. R. (1989). User acceptance of computer technology: A comparison of two theoretical models. Management Science35(8), 982-1003.


December 2019, (c) Arun Vishwanath, PhD, MBA; Email:

Keywords: cyber hygiene, science of cyber security, human factors, OPSEC
















Photo by Bermix Studio

This month we learned that a US maritime base had to be taken offline for more than 30 hours because of a ransomware attack that interrupted cameras, doors, and critical monitoring systems. It’s not the first such attack, and it’s most definitely not the last.

Following it will be the usual drumbeat:  a call for more cyber hygiene. Cyber hygiene was last decade’s elixir for protecting against all cyber incidents, from Ring camera hacks to ransomware. It appeared in congressional testimonies, policy documents, and countless websites—16 million when I last searched.

But, judging from the continuing news of breaches and calls for more of it, it appears we never have enough of it. Or do we?

The answer to this question is actually hard to find. The reason being that no website tells you how much cyber hygiene you need, or whether you have enough.

Most begin by comparing cyber hygiene to personal hygiene—the cyber equivalent of washing your hands—to dole out some “always do this” advice—such as always use long, complex passwords (with uppercase and non-alphabetic characters) to ensure cyber safety. Herein lies the problem, and the reason why we haven’t achieved cyber hygiene yet.

The fact is that cyber hygiene is nothing like personal hygiene. Over the centuries, our bodies have  evolved outer and inner defenses, from hair and skin to white blood cells. This is why we can fend off all manner of germs, despite the fact that everyone from healthcare professionals to food service workers inadequately wash their hands.

Photo by Petter Lagson

In contrast, the components of computers are dumb circuits, many with flaws and without protections.  In 2018, we learnt of defects in every computer chip manufactured in the last two decades and there are many more vulnerabilities in the external sensory organs of computers (keyboard, camera, microphone), and in applications and operating systems.

Any of these can be compromised using malware deployed in spear phishing emails, and all it takes is a single inadvertent click on the email to cripple an entire corporation. Cyber hygiene doesn’t afford us the same room for error that personal hygiene does.

It gets worse: while there is little bad that can come from hand-washing, blindly following a cyber hygiene best practice can be harmful to your cyber health. For instance, many users are told to look for SSL icons (the green padlock) on their browsers next to a website’s name to assess its veracity, but aren’t told that many phishing websites – two out of three is a recent survey – also possess these icons.

Many such purported best practices are poorly developed, often without considering their real-world use environments. Such was the case with the 2004 NIST guideline advocating complex passwords, which was based on how easy it was for computers to crack them rather than how people remembered passwords. Users, constantly bombarded with password change requests, began reusing passwords and became accustomed to getting password change requests—something that hackers mimicked in spearphishing attacks.

The NIST guidelines were reversed in 2017, but by then countless compromises were likely caused by it. We cannot afford another decade of such missteps.

To begin, we have to stop espousing broad cyber hygiene best practice suggestions without testing their need and efficacy in real user environments.

Photo by Petter Lagson

Second, we need to move away from asking people to just do things that keep them safe to explaining why. Be it two-factor authentication or the application of software patches, every best practice has its limits and can be a conduit for compromise, and users must be informed of these.

Third, we need to reorient our fundamental view of cyber hygiene. One area that can serve as a model is Operational Security (OPSEC), a methodology developed by the US military during the Vietnam War to protect critical information from getting into the hands of the adversary. OPSEC helps users assess which information is critical based on what it could reveal, and then instructs users on ways to protect it.

Some of these principles are readily applicable in areas such as election security, where the US military is already training state and local officials. We can apply the same process for our cyber safety, moving away from following broad cyber hygiene guidelines to focused practices designed to protect critical personal information.

Finally, we must stop doling out cyber hygiene advice without measuring who needs it or how much of it they need. Recent user research has developed a Cyber Hygiene Inventory, a 20-question survey that measures different facets of user cyber hygiene and provides users with a 0–100 cyber hygiene score. The score can be used as a baseline to assess how much cyber hygiene users across an organization or even a region need and track how well they have progressed towards acquiring it.

If the last presidential elections taught us anything, it is that cyber security is intrinsically linked to the functioning of our democracy. In 2020, let’s resolve to stop asking for more cyber hygiene and start working towards everyone finally having it.


*A version of this post appeared here.

Cyber hygiene: the term that is evoked whenever there is a threat to our infrastructurea ransomware attack, or any data breach. It appears to be that elusive thing users never seem to have enough.

But how does one get this cyber hygiene? Better yet, do we even know what it means? Or how much of it we need?

Photo by freestocks

I searched wide for the answer and was surprised to find no answer. In fact, I ended up with far more questions.

Because although the term appears thousands of times on various webpages, usually followed by some avowed best practice suggestions on what users should or shouldn’t  do online, none explain where these suggestions came from or whether doing what was suggested actually helps.

Besides, there exists no measurements for any of this. So how does one know they lack cyber hygiene? Or where they lack it? Or if they ever achieved it?

Cyber hygiene seems like that ever elusive elixir every security expert doles out: Everyone needs to have some of it, but no one can ever have it.

I am also to blame for some of this. In early 2015, in the aftermath of the infamous Sony Picture breach, I was searching for a term that could capture what users needed to do to prevent social engineering attacks. I wasn’t satisfied with terms like “human factors” because they signified a field of study–not what an user should be doing to help protect the enterprise from being breached.

My search led to a speech by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano who, almost two years earlier, had used the term in the context of developing better user habits. I thought it was perfect. I used it in my press piece and in media interviews. The term caught on.

On the one hand it achieved my goal–drawing attention to what users had to do, but on the other, it helped cloak the problem. Soon the lack of Cyber Hygiene became the catch-all term used to blame anyone who didn’t do something–usually something that was defined after a successful breach.

Feeling responsible, I set about developing a quantitative metric for measuring cyber hygiene. My goal was to define what we meant by user cyber hygiene (and what we didn’t), identify the underlying parts of it, and create a self-report questionnaire for measuring it–so we can we tell who has it, who lacks it, what they lack, and by how much.. Among those helping me were CISOs, technologists, graduate students, and team of top notch researchers from Singapore.

Over the course of a year and a half, I conducted a series of research studies beginning with interviews of CISOs, security experts, students, and industry professionals, followed by surveys of students, CISOs, employees of a federal government agency, and general Internet users. At each stage, the survey tool, which began at around 80-100 questions, was tested, refined, reduced, and retested. It was also put through various quantitative tests, from multi-dimensional scaling (MDS) and cluster analysis to confirmatory factor analysis and various validity checks.

The final outcome of all this was a 20-question Cyber Hygiene Inventory (CHI)© that quantitatively assesses user cyber hygiene across five dimensions. The dimensions, uncovered through the analytical approach, fit the acronym SAFETY. Here the S signifies Storage and Device Hygiene, A stands for Authentication and Credential, F for Facebook and Social Media, E for Email and Messaging, T for Transmission and Y–is the reference to You or the user.

The overall scale nets a possible CHI range of 0-100, with higher numbers indicating better cyber hygiene. The CHI score provides an instant snapshot of how much cyber hygiene each user possesses. Dig deeper and you get a breakdown of their cyber hygiene within each of the five categories, helping pinpoint where the user is lacking and where improvements are necessary. Furthermore, by comparing CHI across users or groups and you get to know exactly how well an employee or group is actually doing in their cyber hygiene levels relative to others in an organization (or across an entire region or sector).

The CHI has enormous potential–from providing quantitative insights into cyber hygiene levels to helping pinpoint what is lacking, where, and by how much. For organizations with a defined cyber risk assessment program (such as those implementing the NIST Cybersecurity Framework), the CHI helps develop a more accurate user risk profile, so they can better align their resources and implement pointed interventions that improve their overall risk posture. For other organizations, the CHI provides a benchmark understanding of where they stand–a first step towards developing a user risk profile.

Now rather than blaming everyone and asking them to get cyber hygiene, or worse yet, saying cyber hygiene has been achieved because someone passed a phishing penetration test, we can know exactly how much cyber hygiene users actually possess and what they need to work on–so as to improve their own and the organization’s overall cyber resilience.

You can read more about the CHI by clicking here: LINK

© Arun Vishwanath, 2019

*A version of this post appeared here.

Photo by Bermix Studio

Cyberwarfare suddenly went public late last month.

Multiple media outlets reported that President Trump had authorized U.S. Cyber Command to conduct a cyberstrike on Iran. Obviously, this isn’t the first such attack by a nation, or even by the United States, on another — the Russians, Chinese and North Koreans have their digital fingerprints on all manner of attacks here, and the U.S. government recently reportedly conducted retaliatory attacks on Russia’s Internet Research Agency for misinformation campaigns during the 2016 presidential election.

And, Iran, unarguably, makes for a deserving target: Iranian hackers were behind the 2016 incursion on the Bowman Avenue dam in New York and the massive ransomware attack that in March 2018 crippled all of Atlanta’s city government systems, and they are likely behind ransomware attacks on city government systems in Greenville, N.C., and Baltimore.

But this attack heralds a new age of Internet warfare — a likely outcome of the elevated role of U.S. Cyber Command under National Security Adviser John Bolton, who has been hinting at such a cyber offensive for a while — and is a harbinger of much more to come.

Though many previous attacks — such as the now well-known 2010 Stuxnet malware purportedly developed by U.S. and Israeli intelligence and used to damage systems controlling Iran’s fledgling nuclear program — have been widely reported on as acts of espionage, they were only accidentally discovered by security companies, never confirmed by either nation.

In contrast, this time multiple administration officials, albeit unofficially, confirmed the strike, after key White House officials such as Bolton have openly espoused the need for offensive cyberattacks, setting the stage for such actions.

So if the United States did launch this attack — and all indicators, including Iran’s telecom minister claiming that the attacks occurred but were unsuccessful, suggest that is the case — then this is a paradigm shift in the use of the Internet as an instrument of war, with likely significant consequences.

For one thing, the United States has more targets than most nations — targets that could be subject to retaliation for an attack that the government admits to carrying out. Compared to many other nations, especially adversaries such as Iran, the U.S. has more computers, more mobile and connected devices, more websites and more infrastructure that is reliant on the Internet. We also have more users going online for all manner of actives ranging from everyday communications to commercial transactions, health care management, and government operations. Much of this is exposed and vulnerable. For instance, reports from the Government Accountability Office point to thousands of vulnerabilities that remain in federal government systems, and there are many more unaccounted-for weaknesses in various state, local and corporate systems throughout the nation, which we often only learn about after a major breach.

Social-engineering attacks — phishing via email, social media, mobile and messaging —that target users directly continue to grow in intensity and sophistication. Not only is U.S. exposure to such attacks significantly greater, because we have many more users, but we also not found an effective defense against them.

Another problem is that the attack tools developed by our intelligence agencies tend to become sought-after targets for other nations that don’t have the technical depth to develop their own. This has been the case with past tools, such as Eternal Blue, developed by the National Security Agency, which was stolen and leaked by a hacker group and subsequently used by North Korean hackers to create WannaCry — the massive ransomware attack that crippled millions of computers in more than 150 nations in a matter of hours. That desire to match U.S. capabilities will only be worse after an officially confirmed attack.

After an incident like this one is made public, nations often become increasingly paranoid and engage in riskier actions to protect against attacks. For instance, shortly after the SEALs killed Bin Laden in Pakistan, their military began hiding their nuclear arsenal in unguarded delivery vans in congested civilian areas, all in an attempt to avoid being detected by our intelligence agencies. If Iran fears another cyberattack, it could simply stop using computing technology in critical areas such as protecting covert nuclear equipment, which could significantly jeopardize their safety and our ability to effectively monitor them.

Even without open cyberattacks, the United States already tends to be a convenient scapegoat for adversarial regimes wanting to distract attention away from their shortcomings. For instance, recently Venezuela’s embattled president Nicolás Maduro blamed a five-day nationwide power blackout caused by a woefully underfunded electric grid on American cyberwarfare.

Open cyberwarfare will also have a chilling effect on the continued development and use of the Internet. Already, some nations are refusing to deploy technologies developed by certain nations, while some others are attempting to develop their own software, operating systems and networks. This attack could also draw investment away from developing consumer technologies to designing cyber weapons, which will lead to a virtual arms race, with nations creating proprietary computing systems, forming closed communication networks and alliances — in essence, forming a Digital Iron Curtain.

Before things get that carried away, the world should agree that the Internet should not be used as a battlefield.

This may sound pacifistic, even far-fetched. But email, social media, search engines, even messaging platforms work better when more people use and contribute to them. As the Internet’s use worldwide has increased, so have the fortunes of the American public — who have helmed many of the virtual businesses and products that have shaped the 21st century.

The Internet is far too important to pull into warfare — not just for billions of people all over the world, but especially for Americans. The potential dangers of allowing open cyberwarfare are already clear enough. Nations shouldn’t wait until future attacks make them even clearer before they act.


*A version of this post appeared as an op-ed in the Washington Post and other publications. 

Photo by Dan Nelson

Research points to users being significantly more susceptible to social attacks they receive on mobile devices. This is the case for email-based spear phishing, spoofing attacks that attempt to mimic legitimate webpages, as well as attacks via social media. [1], [2], [3]

The reasons for this stem from the design of mobile and how users interact with these devices. In hardware terms, mobile devices have relatively limited screen sizes that restrict what can be accessed and viewed clearly. Most smartphones also limit the ability to view multiple pages side-by-side, and navigating pages and apps necessities toggling between them– all of which make it tedious for users to check the veracity of emails and requests while on mobile. 

Mobile OS and apps also restrict the availability of information often necessary for verifying whether an email or webpage is fraudulent. For instance, many mobile browsers limit users’ ability to assess the quality of a website’s SSL certificate. Likewise, many mobile email apps also limit what aspects of the email header is visible and whether the email-source information is even accessible. Mobile software also enhances the prominence of GUI elements that foster action–accept, reply, send, like, and such– which make it easier for users to respond to a request. Thus, on the one hand, the hardware and software on mobile devices restrict the quality of information that is available while on the other they make it easier for users to make snap decisions.

The final nail is driven by how people use mobile devices. Users often interact with their mobile devices while walking, talking, driving, and doing all manner of other activities that interfere with their ability to pay careful attention to incoming information. While already cognitively constrained, on screen notifications that allow users to respond to incoming requests, often without even having to navigate back to the application from which the request emanates, further enhance the likelihood of reactively responding to requests.

Thus, the confluence of design and how users interact with mobile devices make it easier for users to make snap, often uninformed decisions–which significantly increases their susceptibility to social attacks on mobile devices. 

[1] Vishwanath, A. (2016). Mobile device affordance: Explicating how smartphones influence the outcome of phishing attacks. Computers in Human Behavior, 63, 198-207.

[2] Vishwanath, A. (2017). Getting phished on social media. Decision Support Systems, 103, 70-81.

[3] Vishwanath, A., Harrison, B., & Ng, Y. J. (2018). Suspicion, cognition, and automaticity model of phishing susceptibility. Communication Research, 45(8), 1146-1166.

The first step in conducting online propaganda efforts and misinformation campaigns is almost always a fake social media profile. Phony profiles for nonexistent people worm their way into the social networks of real people, where they can spread their falsehoods. But neither social media companies nor technological innovations offer reliable ways to identify and remove social media profiles that don’t represent actual authentic people.It might sound positive that over six months in late 2017 and early 2018, Facebook detected and suspended some 1.3 billion fake accounts. But an estimated 3 to 4 percent of accounts that remain, or approximately 66 million to 88 million profiles, are also fake but haven’t yet been detected. Likewise, estimates are that 9 to 15 percent of Twitter ‘s 336 million accounts are fake.

Fake profiles aren’t just on Facebook and Twitter, and they’re not only targeting people in the U.S. In December 2017, but German intelligence officials also warned that Chinese agents using fake LinkedIn profiles were targeting more than 10,000 German government employees. And in mid-August, the Israeli military reported that Hamas was using fake profiles on Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp to entrap Israeli soldiers into downloading malicious software.

Although social media companies have begun hiring more people and using artificial intelligence to detect fake profiles, that won’t be enough to review every profile in time to stop their misuse. As my research explores, the problem isn’t actually that people – and algorithms – create fake profiles online. What’s really wrong is that other people fall for them.

My research into why so many users have trouble spotting fake profiles has identified some ways people could get better at identifying phony accounts – and highlights some places technology companies could help.

People fall for fake profiles

To understand social media users’ thought processes, I created fake profiles on Facebook and sent out friend requests to 141 students in a large university. Each of the fake profiles varied in some way – such as having many or few fake friends, or whether there was a profile photo. The idea was to figure out whether one or another type of profile was most successful in getting accepted as a connection by real users – and then surveying the hoodwinked people to find out how it happened.

I found that only 30 percent of the targeted people rejected the request from a fake person. When surveyed two weeks later, 52 percent of users were still considering approving the request. Nearly one in five – 18 percent – had accepted the request right away. Of those who accepted it, 15 percent had responded to inquiries from the fake profile with personal information such as their home address, their student identification number, and their availability for a part-time internship. Another 40 percent of them were considering revealing private data.

But why?

When I interviewed the real people my fake profiles had targeted, the most important thing I found was that users fundamentally believe there is a person behind each profile. People told me they had thought the profile belonged to someone they knew, or possibly someone a friend knew. Not one person ever suspected the profile was a complete fabrication, expressly created to deceive them. Mistakenly thinking each friend request has come from a real person may cause people to accept friend requests simply to be polite and not hurt someone else’s feelings – even if they’re not sure they know the person.

In addition, almost all social media users decide whether to accept a connection based on a few key elements in the requester’s profile – chiefly how many friends the person has and how many mutual connections there are. I found that people who already have many connections are even less discerning, approving almost every request that comes in. So even a brand-new profile nets some victims. And with every new connection, the fake profile appears more realistic and has more mutual friends with others. This cascade of victims is how fake profiles acquire legitimacy and become widespread.

The spread can be fast because most social media sites are designed to keep users coming back, habitually checking notifications and responding immediately to connection requests. That tendency is even more pronounced on smartphones – which may explain why users accessing social media on smartphones are significantly more likely to accept fake profile requests than desktop or laptop computer users.

Illusions of safety

And users may think they’re safer than they actually are, wrongly assuming that a platform’s privacy settings will protect them from fake profiles. For instance, many users told me they believe that Facebook’s controls for granting differing access to friends versus others also protect them from fakers. Likewise, many LinkedIn users also told me they believe that because they post only professional information, the potential consequences for accepting rogue connections on it are limited.

But that’s a flawed assumption: Hackers can use any information gleaned from any platform. For instance, simply knowing on LinkedIn that someone is working at some business helps them craft emails to the person or others at the company. Furthermore, users who carelessly accept requests assuming their privacy controls protect them imperil other connections who haven’t set their controls as high.

Seeking solutions

Using social media safely means learning how to spot fake profiles and use privacy settings properly. There are numerous online sources for advice – including platforms’ own help pages. But too often it’s left to users to inform themselves, usually after they’ve already become victims of a social media scam – which always begins with accepting a fake request.

Adults should learn – and teach children – how to examine connection requests carefully in order to protect their devices, profiles and posts from prying eyes, and themselves from being maliciously manipulated. That includes reviewing connection requests during distraction-free periods of the day and using a computer rather than a smartphone to check out potential connections. It also involves identifying which of their actual friends tend to accept almost every friend request from anyone, making them weak links in the social network.

These are places social media platform companies can help. They’re already creating mechanisms to track app usage and to pause notifications, helping people avoid being inundated or needing to constantly react. That’s a good start – but they could do more.

For instance, social media sites could show users indicators of how many of their connections are inactive for long periods, helping people purge their friend networks from time to time. They could also show which connections have suddenly acquired large numbers of friends, and which ones accept unusually high percentages of friend requests.

Social media companies need to do more to help users identify and report potentially fake profiles, augmenting their own staff and automated efforts. Social media sites also need to communicate with each other. Many fake profiles are reused across different social networks. But if Facebook blocks a faker, Twitter may not. When one site blocks a profile, it should send key information – such as the profile’s name and email address – to other platforms so they can investigate and potentially block the fraud there too.

[A version of this article appeared on The Conversation]

The continued prosecution of “All the President’s Men” does little to stop the Russians from attempting to influence America’s upcoming midterm elections. And reports from Missourito Californiasuggest they are already looking for our cyber weaknesses to exploit.

Chief among these: spear phishing—emails containing hyperlinks to fake websites—that the Russians used to hack into the DNC emails and set in motion their 2016 influence campaign.

After two years of congressional hearings, indictments, and investigations, spear phishing not only continues to be the commonest attack used by hackers, but the Russians are still trying to use it against us.

The is because in the ensuing time, spear phishing has become even more virulent, thanks to the availability of sophisticated malware, some stolen from intelligence agencies; troves of people’s personal information from previous breaches; and ongoing developments in machine learning that can deep-dive into this data and craft highly effective attacks.

Just last week, Microsoft blocked six fake websitesthat were likely to be used for spear phishing the US Senate by the same Russian intelligence unit responsible for the 2016 DNC hack

But the Internet is vast and there are many more fundamental weaknesses still available for exploit.

Take the URLs with which we identify websites. Thanks to Internationalized Domain Names (IDNs)that allow websites to be registered in languages other than English, many fake websites used for spear phishing are registered using homoglyphs— characters from languages that look like English language characters. For instance, a fake domain for could be registered by replacing the English “a” or “o” with their Cyrillic equivalents. Such URLs are hard for people to discern visually and even email scanning programs, trained to flag words like “password” which are common in phishing emails, like the one the Russians in 2016 used to hack into Jon Podesta’s emails, can be tricked. And while many browsers prevent URLs with homoglyphs from being displayed, some like Firefox still expect users to alter their browser settings for protection.

Making things worse is the proliferation of Certification Authorities (CA), the organizations issuing digital certificates that make the lock icon and HTTPS appear next to a website’s name on browsers. While users are taught to trust these symbols, an estimated one in four phishing websites actually have HTTPS certificates. This is because some CA’s have been hacked, meaning there are many roguecertificates out there, while some others have doled out free certificates to just about anyone. For instance, one CA last year issued certificates to15000 websites with names containing some combination of the word PayPal—all for spear phishing.

Besides these, the problem of phony social media profiles, which the Russians used in 2016 for phishing, trolling and spreading fake news, remains intractable. Just last week, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) reported a social media phishing campaign by Hamas, luring its troops to download malware using fake social media profiles on Facebook, Instagram, and Whatsapp. Also last week, Facebook, followed by Twitter, blocked profiles linked to Iranian and Russian operatives being used for spreading misinformation.

These attacks, however, reveal a critical weakness of influence campaigns: by design, they utilize overlapping profiles in multiple platforms. Yet, today, social media organizations internally police their networks and keep information in their own “walled gardens.”

A better solution would be to therefore host data on suspect profiles and pages in a unified, open-source repository, one that accepts inputs from other media organizations, security organizations, even users who find things awry. Such an approach would help detect and track coordinated social media influence campaigns—which would be of enormous value to law enforcement and even media organizations big and small, many of which get targeted using the same profiles.

A platform for this could be the Certificate Transparencyframework, where digital certificates are openly logged and verified, which has been adopted by many popular browsers and operating systems. For now, this framework only audits digital certificates but, it could be expanded to encompass domain name auditing and social media pages.

Finally, we must improve user education. Most users know little about homoglyphs and even less about how to change their browser settings to ensure against them. Furthermore, many users, after being repeatedly trained to look for HTTPS icons on websites, have come to implicitly trust them. Many even mistake such symbols to mean that a website is legitimate. Because even an encrypted site could be fraudulent, users have to be taught to be cautious, and to assess website factors ranging from the spelling used in the domain name, to the quality of information on the website, to its digital certificate and the CA who issued it. Such initiatives must be complemented with better, more uniform Internet browser design, so users do not have to tinker with settings to ensure against being phished. 

Achieving all this requires leadership, but the White House, which ordinarily would be best positioned to address them, recently fired its cybersecurity czar and eliminated the role. And when according to GAO, federal agencies have yet to address over a third of its 3000 cybersecurity recommendations, the President instead talks about developing a Space Force. Last we knew the Martians haven’t landed, but the Russians sure are probing our computer systems.


*A version of this post was published in CNN: