Security white hats, despair: users will run dodgy executables if they are paid as little as one cent.
Even more would allow their computers to become infected by botnet software nasties if the price was increased to five or 10 cents. Offer a whole dollar and you'll secure a herd of willing internet slaves.
The demoralising findings come from a study lead by Nicolas Christin, research professor at Carnegie Mellon University's CyLab which baited users with a benign Windows executable sold to users under the guise of contributing to a (fictitious) study.
It was downloaded 1,714 times and 965 users actually ran the code. The application ran a timer simulating an hour's computational tasks after which a token for payment would be generated.
The researchers collected information on user machines discovering that many of the predominantly US and Indian user machines were already infected with malware despite having security systems installed, and were happy to click past Windows' User Access Control warning prompts.
The presence of malware actually increased on machines running the latest patches and infosec tools in what was described as an indication of users' false sense of security.
Users completing the tasks told a subsequent questionnaire they were conscious of security risks leading to the conclusion that users were happy to give up control of their machines for a pittance provided compute power was not impacted.
It was fantastic news for bot owners who could offer payment in exchange for exclusive control of more stable zombie machines: such a model was dubbed a "Fair Trade Botnet".
"We demonstrate that, far from being consistent with their stated preferences, in practice, users actually do not attach any significant economic value to the security of their systems," research quartet Nicolas Christin, Serge Egelman, Timothy Vidas, and Jens Grossklags wrote in a paper titled It’s All About The Benjamins (PDF).
"While ignorance could explain this state of affairs, we show that the reality is much worse, as some users readily turn a blind eye to questionable activities occurring on their systems, as long as they can themselves make a modest profit out of it," the researchers write, adding that "...many users seem to be content ignoring possible security compromises as long as the compromised state does not noticeably impact the performance of the machine."
The tool was reposted to Amazon's Mechanical Turk every week for five weeks with the price paid for the work increasing every seven days from $0.01 to $0.05, $0.10, $0.50, and finally $1.00. Users could not participate if they had already done so in prior weeks.
More users were expectantly willing to run the potential bot trojan at $1, but still 22 per cent of the total sucker count played for one cent.
Seventeen users won a gold star by running the executable in a virtual machine.
"This raises questions about the effectiveness of well known security advice when competing against the smallest of incentives," the researchers wrote.
Readers can listen to a podcast of Christin discussing the work at the 2014 Workshop on Security and Human Behaviour. ®