Security pros' advice to consumers: 'We dunno, try 152 things'

Google survey finds pros don't like safety strategies preferred by spooks

A Google-conducted survey of 231 infosec pros worldwide has reaffirmed the industry's faith in strong passwords, and achieved consensus about nothing else.

It's almost unfair to make fun of the study's title, “152 Simple Steps to Stay Safe Online: Security Advice for Non-Tech-Savvy Users”, because that's clearly an editorial slip-up (the document [PDF] also includes the note, “ED: Please provide section title”).

What's clear is that infosec types can't agree, on an industry-wide basis, on the content of anything like the Australian Signals Directorate's (ASD's) enterprise-focussed “Essential Eight” safety strategies.

Hence: by asking 231 security pros for their top three pieces of advice, the suffering authors of the study (Robert Reeder, Iulia Ion, and Sunny Consolvo) ended up with a list 152 items long. As the paper dryly notes, “future work is needed to distill the 152 pieces of advice and communicate to users the most important ones”.

The better news, threading through that quagmire, is that at least the most-cited advice was reassuringly “don't be stupid” stuff. Here, we pick out everything with more than 30 mentions:

Advice Mentions
Patch systems and software 90
Use unique passwords 68
Use strong passwords 58
Use multifactor authentication 36
Use antivirus software 35
Use a password manager 33

However, to Vulture South's eagle eye (sorry), it's depressing how many things we'd consider obvious lacked traction even among experts.

Advice Mentions
Don't open unexpected attachments 19
Limit privileges (don't run as admin) 12
Backup your data 10
Don't trust open networks 4
Lock all devices 4
Don't use Java 4

Two of these least-mentioned strategies (backup, and privilege limitation), are on the ASD's “Essential Eight”, so why experts didn't agree on their importance is a mystery.

As our Googlers said, “it’s perhaps unsurprising that users don’t follow all the advice on offer—there’s a lot of it, it spans diverse areas, and it’s not clear where to start. Users are probably not receiving a consistent message on what’s most important and exactly what to do in each area”.

We couldn't agree more. ®

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