Security, cost and usability (pick 2)

If we cannot be explicit that there is a trade-off, it’s always security that loses.

Everybody wants security: why wouldn’t you? Let’s role-play: you’re a software engineer on a project to create a security product. There comes a time in the product life-cycle when it’s nearly due, and, as usual, time is tight. So you’re in the regular project meeting and the product manager’s there, so you ask them what they want you to do: should you prioritise security? The product manager is very clear[1]: they will tell you that they want the product as secure as possible – and they’re right, because that’s what customers want. I’ve never spoken to a customer (and I’ve spoken to lots of customers over the years) who said that they’d prefer a product which wasn’t as secure as possible. But there’s a problem, which is that all customers also want their products tomorrow – in fact, most customers want their products today, if not yesterday.

Luckily, products can generally be produced more quickly if more resources are applied (though Frederick Brooks’ The Mythical Man Month tells us that simple application of more engineers is actually likely to have a negative impact), so the requirement for speed of delivery can be translated to cost. There’s another thing that customers want, however, and that is for products to be easy to use: who wants to get a new product and then, when it arrives, for it to take months to integrate or for it to be almost impossible for their employees to run it as they expect?

So, to clarify, customers want a security product to be be the following:

  1. secure – security is a strong requirement for many enterprises and organisations[3], and although we shouldn’t ever use the word secure on its own, that’s still what customers want;
  2. cheap – nobody wants to pay more than the minimum they can;
  3. usable – everybody likes simple-to-use, easy-to-integrate applications.

There’s a problem, however, which is that out of the three properties above, you can only choose two for any application or project. You say this to your product manager (who’s always right, remember[1]), and they’ll say: “don’t be ridiculous! I want all three”.

But it just doesn’t work like that: why? Here’s my take on the reasons. Security, simply stated, is designed to stop people doing things. Stated from the point of view of a user, security’s view is to reduce usability. “Doing security” is generally around applying controls to actions in a system – whether by users or non-human entities – and the simplest way to apply it is “blanket security” – defaulting to blocking or denying actions. This is sometimes known as fail to safe or fail to closed.

Let’s take an example: you have a simple internal network in your office and you wish to implement a firewall between your network and the Internet, to stop malicious actors from probing your internal machines and to compromised systems on the internal network from communicating out to the Internet. “Easy,” you think, and set up a DENY ALL rule for connections originating outside the firewall, and a DENY ALL rule for connections originating inside the firewall, with the addition of a ALLOW all outgoing port 443 connections to ensure that people can use web browsers to make HTTPS connections. You set up the firewall, and get ready to head home, knowing that your work is done. But then the problems arise:

  • it turns out that some users would like to be able to send email, which requires a different outgoing port number;
  • sending email often goes hand in hand with receiving email, so you need to allow incoming connections to your mail server;
  • one of your printers has been compromised, and is making connections over port 443 to an external botnet;
  • in order to administer the pay system, your accountant – who is not a full-time employee, and works from home, needs to access your network via a VPN, which requires the ability to accept an incoming connection.

Your “easy” just became more difficult – and it’s going to get more difficult still as more users start encountering what they will see as your attempts to make their day-to-day revenue-generating lives more difficult.

This is a very simple scenario, but it’s clear that in order to allow people actually to use a system, you need to spend a lot more time understanding how security will interact with it, and how people’s experience of the measures you put in place will be impacted. Usability and user experience (“UX”) is a complex field on its own, but when you combine it with the extra requirements around security, things become even more tricky.

You need both to manage the requirements of users to whom the security measures should be transparent (“TLS encryption should be on by default”) and those who may need much more control (“developers need to be able to select the TLS cipher suite options when connecting to a vendor’s database”), so you need to understand the different personae[4] you are targeting for your application. You also need to understand the different failures modes, and what the correct behaviour should be: if authentication fails three times in a row, should the medical professional who is trying to get a rush blood test result be locked out of the system, or should the result be provided, and a message sent to an administrator, for example? There will be more decisions to make, based on what your application does, the security policies of your customers, their risk profiles, and more. All of these investigations and decisions take time, and time equates to money. What is more, they also require expertise – both in terms of security but also usability – and that is in itself expensive.

So, you have three options:

  1. choose usability and cost – you can prioritise usability and low cost, but you won’t be able to apply security as you might like;
  2. choose security and cost – in this case, you can apply more security to the system, but you need to be aware that usability – and therefore your customer’s acceptance of the system – will suffer;
  3. choose usability and security – I wish this was the one that we chose every time: you decide that you’re willing to wait longer or pay more for a more secure product, which people can use.

I’m not going to pretend that these are easy decisions, nor that they are always clear cut. And a product manager’s job is sometimes to make difficult choices – hopefully ones which can be re-balanced in a later release, but difficult choices nevertheless. It’s really important, however, that anyone involved in security – as an engineer, as a UX expert, as a product manager, as a customer – understands the trade-off here. If we cannot be explicit that there is a trade-off, then the trade-off will be made silently, and in my experience, it’s always security that loses.


1 – and right: product managers are always right[2].

2 – I know: I used to be a product manager.

3 – and the main subject of this blog, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that I’m writing about it.

4 – or personas if you really, really must. I got an “A” in Latin O level, and I’m not letting this one go.

Author: Mike Bursell

Long-time Open Source and Linux bod, distributed systems security, etc.. Now employed by Red Hat. マイク・バーゼル: オープンソースとLinuxに長く従事。他にも分散セキュリティシステムなども手がける。現在Red Hatのチーフセキュリティアーキテクト

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