Category Archives: Usability

Thoughts on usability vs. security

Warning: This has become a wall of text, and is much less coherent than I wanted it to be. I hope I got my point across.

In the last few days, I had a lot of discussions about usability, security, and the conflict between them. One was in the “Issues”-section of Mailpile, and upcoming FOSS webmail client with encryption support, among other things. One was with another participant of the “Night of Code” last Friday. Both of them were very civil, but at least in the second, it seems I did not get my point across properly. As I expect to discuss this again soon, I thought I’d just write up my argument in a coherent fashion and put it here for everyone to see and discuss.

Usually, the topic comes up when I am discussing improving Mail Encryption to be more user-friendly, as the current version of Enigmail is just plain horrible in that regard (sorry, devs, but it’s the truth). There are several improvements on the way that I know about, but as I am helping design some of them, I sometimes get into an argument with others about how a “thing” should be designed. And that is good, by the way. The only way to make something better is to talk about what’s wrong and how to improve it.

So, usually, the discussion goes somewhat like this: “Hey, let’s improve the process of checking fingerprints to make keysigning parties less horrible” – “Great Idea!” – “oh, yes, and since checking fingerprints is so much easier then, let’s notify people when they are trying to send a mail to an untrusted public key” – “Hmmm. You know, that could be really annoying for people…” – “Yeah, and let’s add a big red warning message that you have to work really hard to turn off so people start signing keys” – “yeah, well, that would be extremely annoying and make people just randomly start signing keys, destroying the Web of Trust system” – “then let’s make it really hard to sign keys without checking fingerprints” – “Noooooooooooooo” – and so on.

The problem, I think, is that the other person is trying to design for security with an added bonus of a bit of usability for nerds, while I am trying to design for regular people, with changes where security may suffer a bit (if you do not know what you are doing). I am always pushing people to adopt mail encryption, and usually the answer is “hell no, that’s way too complicated”. I’m even getting that reply from other CS students, by the way, so that goes to show you just how bad it is (or at least, how bad it is perceived).

So, from my point of view, it is better if a person is using mail encryption in a way that is not completely secure against a sophisticated attack, it is still better than if the person is mailing completely unencrypted. Or, to put it another way: I’d rather have everyone mailing encrypted and 0.0001 % of them being attacked with a targeted, sophisticated attack, than having everyone mailing unencrypted and having their mails read by everyone and their dog (and the NSA).

So, I’m arguing for the following: Make Mail encryption as “out of my face” as possible. Make it possible to automatically download recipient keys. Make it easy, but not required, to validate keys. Make it easy to read your mail on any device, even if it is encrypted (this is not an issue with Enigmail but with the ecosystem of PGP apps in general). Make the usage as easy to understand as possible, and error messages without any technobabble. You can always add a button “details” to show the technical details of what went wrong, but my grandma does not need to know “Error – No valid armored OpenPGP block found”, she only needs to know that something went wrong and she cannot be sure the mail is actually signed, and that in a language that she can understand.

This is hard. I know it is because I did not manage to come up with an error message that fits the criteria outlined above. But it being hard should not keep us from trying to achieve it. We are the only people able to change this, and the rest of the population is depending on us to get this solved so they can use it, too.

Create all of those features outlined above. Turn them on by default. Make the wizzard pop up on first launch (yes, there is a wizzard. It’s even supposed to pop up, but it doesn’t for me). Make it really easy to use PGP. Then make it possible to turn those options off again, for people who know what they are doing and want a clean keyring. But build a system your parents could use, and your non-technical friends could use. Because they are sending their data around unencrypted. And sometimes they are sending your data around. Unencrypted.

Think about it.