Security fatigue is driving users and CISOs into inaction, analyses warn

Whether due to a lack of deep concern or a measure of 'security fatigue' from constant reminders to improve their security practices, recent analyses warn that end users as well as CISOs and entire organisations are struggling to embrace best practices around areas like password management and strategic planning.

The result, according to a new survey of more than 2000 Internet users conducted by Lab42 for password-management firm LastPass, has been a worrying lack of concern from users that know their password practices are unsafe but continue to do so anyway.

Some 91 percent of those surveyed said they knew there was a risk when reusing passwords across sites, but 61 percent said they continued to do so anyway and just 29 percent said they changed their passwords for security reasons – this, despite 75 percent of respondents suggesting they consider themselves informed on password best practices.

Furthermore, users were well aware of what it takes to make a password secure – 82 percent said it requires a combination of letters, numbers and symbols while 69 percent said combining upper and lowercase letters would help – yet many said they use obvious elements such as friend or family names (47 percent), significant dates and numbers (42 percent), pet names (26 percent), and birthdays (21 percent).

“Although we know what safe passwords are, we tend to ignore this knowledge in favor of using easy-to-remember passwords,” the analysis noted. “The traits that normally define us seem to have little bearing on our poor behavior, but do help us rationalize it.”

The survey also raised some concerns for CISOs, with 39 percent of respondents saying they put more effort into creating secure passwords for their personal accounts than their work accounts. “The first line of defence for businesses in protecting themselves from attacks is informed users,” the analysis notes.

Informed CISOs are equally important, of course – and this is a significant concern if the findings of a recent Institute for Critical Infrastructure Technology (ICIT) report are read as accurate. Noting the increasing pressure on CISOs to adapt to changing threat landscapes and pressure from “relentless cyber-adversaries”, internal communication issues, and “an overabundance” of solutions, the analysis warns that CISOs face the very real threat of rapid burnout that has contributed to an average turnover rate of just 17 months.

“In many cases CISOs operate under the unrealistic expectation that they should be able to prevent every breach with a finite budget,” the report's authors note. “They are expected to have enough technical expertise to develop a strategy to protect the business and enough business acumen to convince the board to adopt that strategy because it aligns with the goals of the organization.”

Reaching that goal becomes hard, however, with startups in the ultra-competitive security market pushing CISOs to test and adopt “minimally viable products and provide feedback to fuel future development and refinement prior to mass market release,” the report noted. “Every time a CISO discovers that the adopted vendor solution is unreliable, they must either adopt or develop a replacement solution. The additional responsibility across a platform of products increases the compounded stress and pressure associated with the role.”

Similar issues are affecting once-enthusiastic adopters of digital transformation, Gartner research vice president Andy Rowsell-Jones warned in a recent analysis of Australian companies' transformation efforts to date. Noting that boards “appear to now be distracted by other business priorities,” Rowsell-Jones said interest in transformation “is abating... this is the most dangerous time as there's temptation for organizations to just ignore it and go back to what they were doing before.”

And that, as the LastPass survey warned, is exactly the kind of mentality that is perpetuating security issues that should rightly have been eliminated long ago. The survey highlighted two personality types – control-focused A types and nonchalant B types – and found that while both types had equally insecure online behaviour, they used different emotional tools to rationalise their poor password habits. Like many CISOs, such users are struggling to keep up with the flood of security instructions they are continually receiving – and that's where opportunistic hackers are most likely to step in.

“There are many factors driving these behaviours [including] increasing complexity, growing numbers of accounts, and overall password/security fatigue,” the report notes. “These breakdowns are what hackers count on to create easy opportunities to breach an account. If we are serious about establishing more effective defenses, we need a system that makes it easier for the average user to better manage their password behaviour.”

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