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Psychological profile-based security – could it work?

Fujitsu's working on technology that can assign security countermeasures based on a user's psychological profile and risk tendencies - warning them ahead of time, before an attack can be carried out successfully.

Image of brain courtesy of Shutterstock.Ask around and IT professionals will tell you that one of their top security concerns can be summed up with the acronym PEBCAK – Problem Exists Between Chair and Keyboard.

It’s a tongue-in-cheek way of saying security breakdowns are caused by users.

Many people are susceptible to social engineering attacks and phishing emails, have bad habits like using weak passwords, and leave themselves open to cyberattacks by not taking steps to secure their software and devices.

Many possible solutions have been looked at – training programs and tools that use false phishing emails, minimum password lengths, millions spent on public awareness campaigns – but the user problem persists.

Now Fujitsu, the Japanese technology giant, thinks it has found an answer in social psychology.

Fujitsu claims that its technology can assign security countermeasures based on a user’s psychological profile and risk tendencies – warning them ahead of time, before an attack can be carried out successfully.

Fujitsu’s psychology experiment

Fujitsu and Fujitsu Laboratories announced recently that they have developed the “first technology” for identifying users susceptible to cyberattacks based on their personality traits and computer usage behaviors.

Fujitsu says its technology can tailor security countermeasures to individual users and organizations – for example, by sending warning messages to users who often click on URLs in suspicious email messages, or escalating the threat level of suspicious emails sent between departments with virus-prone users.

To develop the technology, Fujitsu studied a diverse sample of 2000 of its own employees, half of whom had experienced a cyberattack.

These employees filled out a social-psychology questionnaire that the company used to identify the personality traits and behaviors of people likely to suffer three types of attacks: virus infections, scams (such as phishing), and data leakage.

A smaller sample of 250 workers were analyzed by logging their behaviors when using their computers – such as their interactions with their keyboard and mouse, how they respond to false computer freezes, and their clicks on links in emails.

Fujitsu psychological profiling-based security

Among the company’s findings – people who prioritize benefits more than risks are at greater risk of a virus attack, while those with higher confidence in their computer abilities are a greater risk for data leakage.

Someone who prioritizes benefits over rewards, for example, would be more likely to click on links or open attachments without considering the potential for downloading a virus or visiting an infected webpage.

Could it work?

Computer-based behavioral profiling is becoming very popular – recent research has found that algorithms can be more accurate at identifying personality traits and predicting behaviors than a person’s closest friends.

Fujitsu says its behavior-based security tool can recognize what types of risks an individual is prone to, and direct countermeasures most appropriate to that person.

For example, according to IDG News Service, the tool can display individualized warnings such as “You are vulnerable to being scammed. Be careful.”

However, it’s not yet clear how effective these warning messages can be – in itself a subject of much psychological research – because people have a tendency to ignore warning messages or become immune to them.

The tool can also show a user their relative vulnerability to cyberattacks compared to other departments in their company, a form of social influence (which some research has found to be less effective than previously thought).

There’s lot of potential here, but we don’t know yet how accurate this kind of user profiling is, or how effective  – “needs more study” seems to be the prescription for this brand of security.

Fujitsu – which plans to offer the technology commercially for enterprises in 2016 – says it is continuing its research.

In the meantime, watch out for PEBCAKs, and make sure you have layers of security to defend against the inevitable human failures.

Image of psychedelic background brain courtesy of Bruce Rolff and


And for their next trick, the scammers will send a mail saying, “The IT department realizes that some of you are receiving the vulnerable-to-being-scammed message in error. To fix the problem, visit this link and download and run this executable.”


Though I am not an expert in these matters, it seems to me that it should be rather simple to solve the weak password problem by having an algorithm that examines the password that an individual chooses, and then if it is weak, force the individual to create a stronger password.


The people that have weak passwords are the same ones that will write them down on their desk if forced to use complex ones.


@LPaulS: This trick is already used, but not with much discrimination.

A website I maintain on a Drupal server that has no monetary transactions–just news from a volunteer organization–requires a password of length at least eight, including one upper case charcter, one lower-case character, one number, and one “special” character”. The number and special must not appear only in the last position. The password expires and must be changed every six months. None of the last twenty passwords may be re-used. If this server were hacked, there would be no monetary loss.

One of my brokerage accounts contains significant assets. They require a password of length at least six. Period.

Would you say the requirements and risks are reversed?


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