Computer Science Department
School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University


Usability of Security: A Case Study

Alma Whitten, J.D. Tygar

December 1998

Keywords: Security, human-computer interaction, usability, public key cryptography, electronic mail, PGP

Human factors are perhaps the greatest current barrier to effective computer security. Most security mechanisms are simply too difficult and confusing for the average computer user to manage correctly. Designing security software that is usable enough to be effective is a specialized problem, and user interface design strategies that are appropriate for other types of software will not be sufficient to solve it.

In order to gain insight and better define this problem, we studied the usability of PGP 5.0, which is a public key encryption program mainly intended for email privacy and authentication. We chose PGP 5.0 because it has a good user interface by conventional standards, and we wanted to discover whether that was sufficient to enable non-programmers who know little about security to actually use it effectively. After performing both user testing and a cognitive walkthrough analysis, we conclude that PGP 5.0 is not sufficiently usable to provide effective security for most users.

In the course of our study, we developed general principles for evaluating the usability of computer security utilities and systems. This study is of interest not only because of the conclusions that we reach, but also because it can serve as an example of how to evaluate the usability of computer security software.

39 pages

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