No Expert, No Cry

Why you shouldn’t trust (awareness) experts, what should you trust instead, and my new year resolution.

By Eh’den Biber

(see the end of the post with the update…)

Prologue – SANS

During the SANS European awareness summit, I’ve ended up in an interesting debate on twitter with one of the attendees (John Scott). The debate was on the observation I made that science was not part of the agenda in this major awareness summit. There was not a single scientist on stage to talk about their breakthrough research, and none of the tweets about the event (#SecAwareSummit) included any science in them.

My observations didn’t go that well with John, who seems to have taken it a bit personal. To show me I was  wrong he mentioned that Jessica Barker gave a talk. Yes, she did, and yes: she’s a (civil design) doctor, and I barely finished Kindergarten.

When SANS finally posted the slides from the event (including the workshops that occurred before), it seems that the only one who provided external references in their slides was Jess (well done). She mentioned 5 academic papers (from 1996, 1999, 2008, 2008, 2009), one reference to TED talk (2012) and one book (2017). Only one of the research mentioned was focused on information security (2009, Self-efficacy in information security: Its influence on end users’ information security practice behaviour), it used social cognitive theory, and the results suggested that simply listing what not to do and penalties associated with a wrong doing in the users’ information security policy alone will have a limited impact on effective implementation of security measures.

I’ll let Iago express my feelings about that one:

Show Me the Science

If we wish to change behaviour we need to be able to measure it. What to measure, when to measure, where to measure, how to measure – all of these are elements that the scientific method been the most effective approach we have as humans so far.

Yet when it comes to awareness to infosec and privacy we seem to be totally ignoring science. The SANS summit is just one sad reflection. Very few, if any, vendors of “information security awareness training” material or services will provide deep details of the scientific approach they have used to develop their solutions, not to mention any conversation on an evidence. Is there any double blind, placebo-controlled trial that shows the effectiveness of one method over the other? Not that I know of.

In many ways, it’s astonishing. We are in 2018, for Christ’s sake! Awareness to security and privacy elements of information systems is important to many technologies dependent societies, as well as companies. If that’s how much science is involved, no wonder nothing really changes.

The Single Most Important Measurement in Awareness Training

The book “How to Measure Anything in Cybersecurity Risk”, by Douglas W. Hubbard & Richard Seiersen, was written to explain why the current methods used by most organizations to measure cyber security risk are not fit for purpose, and suggest a quantified risk management approach. Chapter 4 in the book was originally called “The Single Most Important Measurement in Cybersecurity”, and I will follow its structure to talk about the single most important measurement in awareness training.

First point – awareness training matters.

Doing awareness training just to be “compliant” is simply insufficient these days. Having the ability to provide proof employees have passed awareness training will not protect your organization from the current risk landscape. Take, for example, GDPR. Without awareness to information security and privacy across all stakeholders, organizations cannot achieve “privacy by design” and “security by design.”. As such, their risk level is increased: it will increase the magnitude of a future loss event in case of a breach due to increased secondary risk (regulator) caused by GDPR lack of compliance. The checkbox days in which organizations only had to prove they have records that employees did a CBT on information security and privacy are over. Organization that has high levels of awareness to information security and privacy will have lower risk of regulatory related actions, and will outperform organizations that only perform awareness activities for compliance reasons.

But how do you know which method of awareness training works? What do you measure? Is it possible that your awareness training doesn’t work at all? Even more importantly, how can you measure the awareness training method itself?

“We often hear that a given method is ‘proven’ and is a “best practice.” It may be touted as a “rigorous” and “formal” method—implying that this is adequate reason to believe that it improves estimates and decisions…Some satisfied users will even provide testimonials to the method’s effectiveness. But how often are these claims ever based on actual measurements of the method’s performance?”(How to Measure Anything in Cybersecurity Risk, Douglas W. Hubbard & Richard Seiersen)

If your organization is using an awareness training method that can’t show meaningful measurable improvement, or, even worse, makes awareness levels to drop down, then the method itself becomes the single biggest risk related to awareness, and improving the method will be the single most important awareness activity’s priority.

We need to find either a measurement that already been proven to work, or if we don’t have one, we need to propose a measurement that will allow us to identify a good awareness training method, as well as what we measurements we shouldn’t be measuring.

Regardless of the method you currently use to educate people about information security and privacy, the question you must ask yourself first is: does it work, and how do I measure its success?
How can you tell if whatever baseline you measured at first was the right baseline to measure, and how can you tell if your measurements were accurate? Take, for example, the typical “phishing” exercise so many organizations tend to use as part of their baseline analysis – what exactly are you measuring there? If someone didn’t click on a phishing email, does it mean that they will not click on the next phishing email if they are checking their email on their mobile phone? If someone reported on phishing email, does it mean he will design information systems which will follow the “privacy by design” principles?

The Awareness Placebo

Meet the “analysis placebo,” or the “overconfidence effect”—the feeling that some analytical method has improved decisions and estimates even when it has not. There are numerous studies in various fields, which showed that when someone is engaged in training it leads to improved level of confidence but not to an actual performance improvement. Here is one example: a 1999 study had subjects which some of the participants were trained in lie detection, and the others didn’t. When both groups were given video tapes of investigations the group who was trained in lie detection had more confidence about their lie detection skills vs. the other group. However, they actually performed worse than the untrained subjects. Another study showed that clinical psychologists became more confident in their diagnosis and their prognosis for various risky behaviours by gathering more information about patients, even though the patient observed outcomes of behaviours did not actually improve.

If you work on the field of awareness training, the fact you are exposed relatively more information on the subject than others will not make you an expert, or improve your ability to decide if the awareness training you choose will be able to deliver what it promised. Actually, even calling “awareness placebo” is wrong – in the field of medicine placebo medication has shown positive effects on patients who took it believing it will help them, while “awareness placebo” has zero benefits for the state of awareness, and in fact reduces it. Remember the phishing exercise I mentioned before? The fact someone successfully detected a phishing email can actually make that person act in a less secure way, because it might increase his perception of good judgement about information security and privacy, when, in fact, might be no real improvement.

In Science We Trust

The take-home message is – do not rely on “experts” just because of their credentials, or experience. If you are the one in charge of delivering awareness training – remember your biases, study them, always insist to use reason and evidence to reach a conclusion about awareness training methods and their capabilities. In other words – use critical thinking, ask for the scientific methods behind the awareness training, challenge the numbers, and never trust your own perception, as you are most likely unaware of your own biases that blind you.

Which bring me to my new year resolution:

International Cyber Security and Privacy Awareness Coalition (ICSPAC)

Cyber security and privacy awareness training should provide measurable increase in people’s ability to act and react correctly with regards to information security and privacy-related decisions and actions, and maintain that ability for a pre-defined window of time across different states of being.

The challenge is that the current platforms used by “awareness experts” to share and exchange their work are not provided by an objective body. They are either being provided by vendors (e.g. SANS) who have their own methodology, or by information security and privacy professional bodies, that are biased due to their inner politics, or by governments, who have no clue what is awareness is.

Since I’ve written extensively on the subject of awareness (see reference below), and since science is continuously being ignored I decided to be the founder of a new organization, called International Cyber Security and Privacy Awareness Coalition (ICSPAC). This will be an open, non-partisan, non-profit organization that aims to educate policy makers, organizations, professionals and the public about conclusive science which can be used to improve the level of awareness in the fields of cyber security and privacy awareness / culture, and where science is absent, to encourage additional research.

Please join if:

  • You wish to found out what can be an effective, evidence-based approaches to cyber security and privacy awareness training.
  • You wish your awareness related metrics to deliver meaningful indication to the state of cyber security and privacy awareness training.
  • Encourage vendor/political/professional bodies agnostic conversations and debates.
  • In my next article, I will provide some science-based insights to awareness training, some of which might be surprising.

Everything gonna be alright…


I published about 35 articles related to the subject of awareness and culture. Here is the list:


  1. Collective Corporate Judgement – suggestion to tackle social network risk is by a concept I will call collective corporate judgement.
  2. Killing Social Engineering – talking about human manipulation as a neurological phenomena.
  3. Amygdalala-land – understand the neurological limitations and advantages (of) our human brain.
  4. Play Dead – “helping your user and friends’ community can only be done if you find a way to empower them, not scare them to death.”
  5. The Metrics – biological, biochemical and neurological examples why people might say they will behave responsible and they will believe it – but will not act responsible
  6. Men without hats are living on the edge – How to solve the Clash between ethics, personal integrity, “the system” and hacking?


  1. Antifragility and the year of the cut – embracing the randomness, chaos and uncertainty of hackers as a survival strategy in these uncertain times.
  2. Failwareness – example when focusing on accountability and standards lead to low awareness.
  3. Social engineering in the 21st century – the lost videos…


  1. Awareness vs. Consciousness – Why “awareness” training fails and the role of consciousness in our lives.
  2. Suicidal Consciousness – how stress “kills” Stress kills “conscious” behaviour.
  3. Don’t professionalize, innovatize – on the difference between “scientists” and “technicians”.
  4. Pray We See – The problem of privacy education.


  1. Personal message to the information security awareness community
  2. The Desolation of Awareness – 1 – The Art of Noticing – why awareness is not as straightforward as most of us perceive it to be.
  3. The Desolation of Awareness – 2 – Making SenseIs there an information security sense like there is a sense of smell? Can we evaluate it? Why our normal definition of information security prevents us from reaching awareness?
  4. The Desolation of Awareness – 3 – One Sense to Rule Them All – What do the colour blue and information security have in common? The fascinating world of the mind.
  5. The Desolation of Awareness – 4 – Buddha Was a Hacker – The root of all problems, Baron Münchhausen, why “no” fails, and why Buddha was a hacker.
  6. The F word – Part 1 – FORGIVENESS – According to neuroscience both self-criticism and criticism of others bring lack of awareness. Forgiveness and compassion
  7. The Invincible Warrior – An awareness tale (or a tale of awareness)


  1. The Awareness Pseudoscience – Moving from benchmarking to baselining.
  2. The Technology Insanity – Why technology is not the solution to lack of awareness.
  3. Dancing with Faust – The hidden cost behind technology addiction, the knowledge culture, and the abandoning of wisdom.
  4. The Corporate Book of the Dead – What will you do when your organisation be annihilated by a cyber-attack?
  5. Why corporations don’t get cyber, or: Cyber, The Supreme Understanding – the supreme understanding why corporations struggle with cyber, and why it is so hard to find a CEO (and board members) who understand cyber.


  1. The Cyber Minority Report: Gender Affairs – Investigating the evolutionary relationship between women, information, and security, via the prism of the red queen hypothesis.
  2. Mr Big (Data) – Why big data and analytics are sexy, and why only awareness can secure them.
  3. EU: The Post Mortem Edition – ANALYSIS: How lack of awareness led us to BREXIT, and what can we do next?
  4. Breaking The Iceberg – What the US election tells us about the lack of awareness we live in – and how it all relates to information security.
  5. When a Muslim met a Jew (the X-rated edition) – Why our inability to grasp the state of the others is in the root of our failure.


  1. Awareness Myth Busting – Why attempts to raise the level of awareness to information security are failing, and what to do in order to change it.
  2. The Revolution – How I became part of an invisible hacking revolution.
  3. GDPR “Unknown Unknowns” – The art of privacy, and why what you don’t know (about the GDPR) WILL kill you.
  4. #Cyberblind – Why salaries and job ads are superb indicators to your organisation cyber security maturity, how it can be improved, and why your organisation won’t do anything to fix it.
  5. Uber and Under the Breach – Everything you need to know about the Uber data breach, and much more on Uber culture.


Presentation given by Jess (Thanks Alain Griffen‍!)

This is NOT the presentation given in the SANS event, but based on the references it should be very close to it…

Let’s break down one example given:

“This seems to support that the fact that the very existence of a stereotype puts pressure on individuals who are the subject of that stereotype, to mean that they don’t perform as well. So obviously this has connotation in all sorts of different groups, for example women and ethnic minorities when it comes to cyber security”.

So, is there a problem with that statement?

Now, first of all, let us look at the original research (Stereotype Threat and Women’s Math Performance, 1999):

First thing to notice was the fact that in the study (study 2 in the paper), what they did was to take the difficult test used in Study 1, which now was divided into two halves, and participants were given 15 min to complete each half. 30 women, 24 men.

Half of the participants were told that the first test was one on which there were gender differences and that the second test was one on which there were no gender differences. The other half were told the opposite, that the first test was one for which there were no gender differences and that the second test was one on which there were gender differences.
What Jess didn’t say was the fact that both men and women performed equally in the second half of the test, regardless of their gender or if they were told this part showed difference or not.

So what have happened to the “stereotype threat”? Did it diminish? What about the responses – did women caught up in their accuracy?

The conclusion of the researchers for this study is …

We believe that by presenting the test as one on which gender differences do not occur, we made the stereotype of women’s math inability irrelevant to interpreting their performance on the test—this particular test.

I will come back to that in a second. Before that, I wish to mention that there was also a third study, because they realised the second study was conducted in a way that might influenced the results (in the first half). I have huge reservation on that study, the whole design is IMHO makes it a felony to call it science. Why? Because it asked the following questions from all participants:

  • If I do poorly on this test, people will look down on me;
  • People will think I have less ability if I do not do well on this test;
  • If I don’t do well on this test, others may question my ability;
  • People will look down on me if I do not perform well on this test
  • I am uncertain I have the mathematical knowledge to do well on this test
  • I can handle this test
  • I am concerned about whether I have enough mathematical ability to do well on the test
  • Taking the test could make me doubt my knowledge of math;
  • I doubt I have the mathematical ability to do well on the test

Why it is a felony? Because there is something called “priming” and “negativity bias” (also known as the negativity effect), which is that even when of equal intensity, things of a more negative nature (e.g. unpleasant thoughts, emotions, or social interactions; harmful/traumatic events) have a greater effect on one’s psychological state and processes than do neutral or positive things.,

Take a look above – only ONE question was positive.

Combine that with the “big 5 personality traits”, where women consistently report higher Neuroticism, agreeableness, warmth (an extraversion facet[70]) and openness to feelings, and men often report higher assertiveness (a facet of extraversion[70]) and openness to ideas as assessed by the NEO-PI-R.[71] Gender differences in personality traits are largest in prosperous, healthy, and egalitarian cultures in which women have more opportunities that are equal to those of men.

If you know women have higher Neuroticism (and it’s been known for a long time), you don’t frame them with negative statements before they are supposed to perform a test!

Sadly, most of the science that is performed as part of the gender studies is not really a science. There are biological as well as social reasons to the fact women performed with low scores. The biological is a subject for a whole bigger discussion, which I have no time to add here (but will do later).

The social reasons can be related to the culture at home, rather than the education systems or what “society” thinks of you. In “Culture and Achievement” (city journal, of The Manhattan Institute for Policy Research), the author demonstrated how families shape their children’s prospects more profoundly than anything government can do.

Last but not least, let’s go back to the first statement of Jess:

This seems to support that the fact that the very existence of a stereotype puts pressure on individuals who are the subject of that stereotype, to mean that they don’t perform as well. So obviously this has connotation in all sorts of different groups, for example women and ethnic minorities when it comes to cyber security“.

There was one small ethnic minority group which its members won 22.5% of Nobel prices. The fact they won so many prices should have made the whole claim of “Stereotype Threat” go to waste. They are called Ashkenazi Jews.


Since I decided to create a place which people could share ideas, I also had to follow GDPR, which mean to make sure it will have “privacy by design” and “security by design”. So the site I’m creating is under development. The prototype seems very promising so far 🙂


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