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It's the culture: The impact of cyber indifference on cybersecurity

By Contributor
Fri 29 Apr 2022

Article by 460degrees human-centric cybersecurity practice lead, Dr Patrick Scolyer-Gray.

Human behaviour and decision-making are the primary determinants of cybersecurity outcomes, but the argument for human-centric cybersecurity (HCCS) has only recently gained traction. Unfortunately, until HCCS becomes a fully integrated component of what is currently an almost entirely technocentric cybersecurity paradigm, Western societies will continue to suffer the consequences of exponential increases in cyber risks.

This is not because HCCS is a silver bullet solution, or even because of how it can contribute to improvements in cyber resilience. HCCS is essential to effecting change because all improvements in cybersecurity are being hamstrung by socio-cultural problems of which 'cyber indifference' is arguably the most influential.

'Cyber indifference' refers to instances where certain combinations of perceptual and behavioural inclinations are adopted and cultivated to cause an individual to believe that they are, in one way or another, unable to exert any meaningful influence over cybersecurity outcomes.

Put simply, a large proportion of people who use networked technologies think, for various reasons, that cybersecurity is beyond their control. Consequently, and as with anything that people think is outside their sphere of influence or responsibility, those afflicted with cyber indifference deliberately avoid or minimise their interactions with cybersecurity.

Contrary to popular opinion, cyber resilience begins and ends with people, and as a result, cyber indifference dramatically increases the vulnerability of individuals and organisations to cyber attacks. The impact of cyber indifference extends far beyond the individual, and it explains poor cybersecurity outcomes past and present.

For example, there have been countless attempts to stimulate public uptake of innumerable technologies designed to protect users from cyber risks. These efforts have mostly failed because of users' lack of demand or interest. Indeed, cyber indifference is a major reason for the success of cyber attacks in general: None are more susceptible to social engineering than the indifferent.

To be clear, people are certainly not indifferent to the consequences when and if they become victims of a cyber attack. However, before (and often after) becoming a victim, the relationship between cyber risks and cybersecurity is considered ambivalence at best. People recognise the significance of cyber risks but then treat the activities involved in their prevention (i.e., cybersecurity) as if they were more or less insignificant.

With alarmingly few exceptions, researchers and practitioners in the cybersecurity industry typically (and incorrectly) view this as a paradoxical behaviour attributable to the frustrating and immovable wild card of 'human factors'. However, core HCCS concepts such as cyber indifference offer superior explanatory power and opportunities for remediation.

Cyber indifference reveals how people's perceptions of cyber risk and cybersecurity are not paradoxical. Instead, they are two categorically distinct phenomena over which people believe they have effectively no control. The way in which cyber indifference recasts individual perceptions of cyber risks and security can be explained through an analogy to how we respond to changes in the weather.

Cyber indifference affects people similar to what it would be like if one lived somewhere it frequently rained (i.e., cyber risks). Theoretically, umbrellas or raincoats (i.e., cybersecurity) are viewed as technologies that are prohibitively expensive, time-consuming to procure, physically exhausting to maintain, and far too complex for the average person to operate.

In addition, even the most elaborate or sophisticated umbrellas and raincoats are not particularly effective at protecting people from the rain anyway. With this analogy in mind, it is important to recall that how we perceive and assign attributes to things is largely a product of culture.

Culture is a primary determinant of behaviour and decision-making, including what people do with new technologies and cybersecurity requirements. Simply put, a clear body of cultural structures pertaining to cybersecurity has yet to emerge, and the fluidity of technology and cybersecurity is delaying their cultivation.

This means that there are no fundamental norms or expectations on which people can rely when deciding whether or not they should engage with cybersecurity in the first place. People are faced with an attack surface that expands in size every time they interact with any of the new networked systems that are foisted upon them. At the same time, people are increasingly aware of processes that they cannot control involving the transfer and storage of their data in a manner that may (or may not) be secure.

The same people are also exposed to a confusing mixture of factual news reports detailing cyber catastrophes and culturally invented portrayals of cyber threat actors. The combination consistently results in an understanding of cyber risks, cyber threat actors and cybersecurity that is more or less distorted but usually instils some degree of concern with cyber risks.

Some of the ideas frequently cultivated include perceptions of cyber threat actors as indomitable foes, cybersecurity as a futile or hopeless endeavour, and the management of cyber risks as a task of immense complexity. Individual conviction in the validity of whatever their views in this regard might be is also constantly reinforced via the individual's consumption of media messages that are saturated with tales of cyber disasters.

The prevailing beliefs and perceptions held by most members of society involve an understanding of cybersecurity as (variously) prohibitively expensive, time-consuming, exhausting to maintain, too complex for most to influence in the first place, and an ultimately futile exercise because of the overwhelming power of cyber threat actors.

Cyber indifference is reinforced further by feelings of helplessness stemming from people's lack of control over their data and the consumption of media messages that convey the impression that their perceptions are valid and the absence of a founding cultural framework governing norms and expectations concerning cybersecurity.

Although HCCS is well-suited to identify and remedy problems like cyber indifference, it has yet to become a fixture of mainstream cybersecurity. An approach to reducing or even eliminating cyber indifference will require the tools, methods, and strategies of HCCS.

However, the dominance of today's techno-centric approach to cybersecurity means that the consideration of behaviour, cognition, power dynamics, culture etc. (i.e., the primary determinants of cyber indifference) will continue to be overlooked, ignored or dismissed.

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