There are many catchy phrases in the security community referring to users in both grandiose and condescending terms. They are often treated like the gospel, yet they’re often based on a rather myopic view of the subject. This view is typically naive and dangerous when actions are based on those catchy phrases. I will deal with others in future columns, but I want to start with this one: “You can’t patch stupid.” I often hear this phrase during conference presentations, when speakers are trying to be clever about how their technical countermeasures will always be ruined by some stupid user.
There are many things wrong with that phrase. The most important aspect is the actual meaning of “stupid.” “Stupid” is generally defined as showing a great lack of intelligence or common sense. Breaking that down, let’s understand that if you are assuming a fundamental level of intelligence in the use of a computer, you either have to knowingly enforce a minimum level of intelligence or assume there is a barely functional level of intelligence on the part of the users. It is impractical for the average security team to assume that all users have any base level of intelligence.
Regarding “common sense,” you cannot have it without common knowledge. I have found that computer personnel tend to assume everyone has the same base of common knowledge that they have regarding security matters. Unless there is a rather thorough, comprehensive security awareness program in place, no assumption of common knowledge — and therefore common sense — can be assumed.
For these reasons, I say, “Behind every stupid user is a stupider security professional.”
That being said, you do have to assume that users will potentially cause damage, either due to naivete or a mistaken action. You therefore must “patch” your systems and network to account for such potential damage. Awareness and training can help to address the naivete by informing users how to make better decisions. At the same time, you should also implement technology and process that reduce the opportunities for users to be presented with choices where they may make mistakes or to mitigate when they do make mistakes.
For example, you can educate users about phishing attacks and safe web browsing. At the same time, anti-malware software should be implemented to filter out ransomware attacks before they reach the user. Setting system permissions to not provide users with administrator privileges will stop malware from loading on the system, while anti-malware loaded on the clients will stop the damage of the malware should it actually load on the system.
All of this will not completely prevent the possibility of successful malware attacks because there is no such thing as perfect security. However, you are essentially patching potentially damaging user actions by putting an environment around users that prevents the actions from being taken or mitigates the action after they are taken.
I won’t contend that there are no “stupid users.” I am certain that about 3% of users will click on a phishing message that says, “This is a phishing message, and if you click on this message, it will ruin your company.” There are also studies that indicate that around 5% of users cause 90% of damage to organizations, and organizations must deal those users.
However, we know these people exist and there are known ways to proactively mitigate the inevitable actions of these people. That is how you patch “stupid,” and if you’re not doing it, you are stupider than the users.
Ira Winkler is president of Secure Mentem and author of Advanced Persistent Security. View Full Bio