In any organisation, employees make implicit or explicit cybersecurity decisions on a regular basis. Such decisions are no longer just the preserve of the cybersecurity teams charged with protecting their organisation’s infrastructure and information.
Managers play a central role in the allocation of resources or the development of strategies that impact security. Procurement officers identify and source hardware and software systems from third parties that, in turn, can impact the organisation’s cybersecurity. Yet, we continue to have a poor understanding of how various types of employees approach cybersecurity and what strategies and patterns underpin their decisions.
What are the consequences – positive or negative – of their strategies?
Is security expertise always an advantage when making decisions?
Decisions and Disruptions
We developed a tabletop game – Decisions and Disruptions – to study the decision-making behaviours of various stakeholders in critical infrastructure settings, such as water treatment, power plants and gas distribution.
The game consists of a Lego® board depicting a small utility infrastructure.
Playing the game requires collective decision making supported by explicit arguments, where players have to argue and reach a consensus for each decision they make. This provides a rich yet intuitive environment where players from varied backgrounds can familiarise themselves with the challenges involved in making security decisions. They can experiment with risk-driven decision making, and discover and assess their own cybersecurity culture.
Our analysis of 14 game sessions involving 52 players from industry and academia revealed a range of strategies, decision processes, and patterns.
We measured how players prioritised between six categories of defences: simple technologies, advanced technologies, data protection, physical protection, intelligence gathering, and human factors
Security experts had a strong interest in advanced technological solutions and tended to neglect intelligence gathering, to their own detriment. Some security expert teams achieved poor results in the game as a consequence.
Managers, too, were technology-driven and focused on data protection, while neglecting human factors more than other groups.
Intriguingly, general IT personnel tended to balance human factors and intelligence gathering with technical solutions.
However, despite efforts in this area, cybersecurity continues to be seen as a largely technology-focused issue. More needs to be done to raise the profile of human and organisational factors in this regard.
Technical experience significantly affected the way players thought.
Teams with little technical experience had shallow, intuition-driven discussions with few concrete arguments.
Technical teams, and the most experienced in particular, had much richer debates. Their arguments were driven by concrete scenarios, anecdotes from experience and procedural thinking.
Security experts showed a high level of confidence in their decisions, despite some of them having bad consequences.
In contrast, non-experts tended to doubt their own skills even when they were playing good games.
In the end, good players were the ones who had the ability to challenge their own preconceptions and adapt to the game’s scenario, regardless of technical expertise. This suggests that, while technical expertise is an important precursor for richer debates and better decisions, it must be complemented by an ability to adapt.
We identified both good decision patterns and bad practices.
Good patterns included attempts to balance priorities, open-mindedness, and adapting strategies based on inputs that challenged preconceptions.
We also observed some bad practices, such as focusing excessively on shiny technological solutions while neglecting basic security hygiene, blindly following charismatic leaders, and adopting tunnel vision – that is, disregarding information given by the environment that does not fit one’s self-proclaimed ‘expertise’.
Group dynamics, along with factors such as outspokenness and seniority, had a clear influence on the decisions taken during the game. This shows once again that organisational factors in cybersecurity need to be better understood.
Play the game
Investigating cybersecurity decision-making processes is key to designing more secure infrastructures and organisations. The Decisions and Disruptions game provides a tool for researchers in that regard. Incidentally, the game is also a valuable tool for decision-makers to train themselves, experiment with realistic infrastructure settings, and reflect on their own decisions and biases.
Playing with dozens of non-technical decision-makers from industry has sparked enthusiastic interest from our players. Cybersecurity is often seen as a grey area that the Decisions and Disruptions game helps to demystify. Such approaches can help to build more effective cybersecurity cultures within organisations.
- Learn more about the tabletop game, Decisions and Disruptions at www.decisions-disruptions.org
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