Comparing how security experts and non-experts stay safe online

By | July 30, 2015

A recent Google security research (beware: good read but VERY detailed) analyzed the differences in the security practices of “non-experts” and “experts” in the field of information security. The paper outlines the results of two surveys—one with 231 security experts, and another with 294 web-users who aren’t security experts—in which Google researchers asked both groups what they do to stay safe online. They wanted to compare and contrast responses from the two groups, and better understand differences and why they may exist.

The key takeaways are:

Here are experts’ and non-experts’ top security practices, according to our study. We asked each participant to list 3 practices (see picture) The common ground: careful password management.

Clearly, careful password management is a priority for both groups. But, they differ on their approaches.

Security experts rely heavily on password managers, services that store and protect all of a user’s passwords in one place. Experts reported using password managers, for at least some of their accounts, three-times more frequently than non-experts. As one expert said, “Password managers change the whole calculus because they make it possible to have both strong and unique passwords.”

On the other hand, only 24% of non-experts reported using password managers for at least some of their accounts, compared to 73% of experts. Our findings suggested this was due to lack of education about the benefits of password managers and/or a perceived lack of trust in these programs. “I try to remember my passwords because no one can hack my mind,” one non-expert told us.

Key differences: software updates and antivirus software

Despite some overlap, experts’ and non-experts’ top answers were remarkably different.
35% of experts and only 2% of non-experts said that installing software updates was one of their top security practices. Experts recognize the benefits of updates—“Patch, patch, patch,” said one expert—while non-experts not only aren’t clear on them, but are concerned about the potential risks of software updates. A non-expert told us: “I don’t know if updating software is always safe. What [if] you download malicious software?” and “Automatic software updates are not safe in my opinion, since it can be abused to update malicious content.”
Meanwhile, 42% of non-experts vs. only 7% of experts said that running antivirus software was one of the top three three things they do to stay safe online. Experts acknowledged the benefits of antivirus software, but expressed concern that it might give users a false sense of security since it’s not a bulletproof solution.

More broadly, our findings highlight fundamental misunderstandings about basic online security practices. Software updates, for example, are the seat belts of online security; they make you safer, period. And yet, many non-experts not only overlook these as a best practice, but also mistakenly worry that software updates are a security risk.
No practice on either list—expert or non-expert—makes users less secure. But, there is clearly room to improve how security best practices are prioritized and communicated to the vast majority of (non expert) users. We’re looking forward to tackling that challenge. [...]“

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