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We need a new language to talk about data security

Human error can only be overcome when the human understands what it is doing wrong


How do you get people to support or reject a concept they don't understand?

This is one of the biggest challenges facing those working in cyber security and online privacy. As with many specialist subjects, those involved in the area know what 2FA is, what encryption is, what metadata is, and why these things are important. So it can be hard to explain what we mean to people who aren't involved in this technology and even harder to make them care despite the importance of these concepts in our everyday lives.

This was a point made very eloquently yesterday at a the launch of the Digital Bill of Rights campaign by Icelandic MP Birgitta Jnsdttir.

"The task," she said, "is to get [people to care about] all these abstracts like metadata nobody's really going to feel emotional about that nobody's going to feel 'oh yes, I have to fight for my metadata!'. Even the word net neutrality, what the hell does that mean?

"We have not done good enough work in order to take all these abstracts and make them metaphors to stuff that people will really feel very passionate about protecting. Like when you say 'book burning' - you will fight to stop the book burning, but there are book burnings happening every day in every library in the world when stuff is taken offline or when Wikipedia is changed for political means."

The interaction between language, understanding and perceived reality, has been the subject of endless discussion in the field of linguistics for centuries, but it's not something that I've thought much about since leaving university especially not in my work life. But perhaps I should have been.

When we think about the weakest link in the cyber security chain the squishy, fleshy bit behind the keyboard maybe we need a fresh approach to encouraging best practice. Maybe we need Birgitta's better metaphors not just to help people better understand their digital rights in the face of legislation such as the Investigatory Powers Bill, but also to help them better understand what security really is and why it's important. To answer the question 'what the hell does 'strong password' even mean?' in a way that people can actually understand and that will make them care.

This isn't about infantalising workers it isn't even, necessarily, about providing more training. It's about raising their awareness of the issues and, perhaps more importantly, increasing the value they place on security and privacy personally. Of course, this won't stop all breaches, but it may at least help recruit everyday workers into the ranks of security, decreasing basic errors like weak or reused passwords, and also help reduce push-back against the IT department and security policies through something more meaningful than "because it's good for you".

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