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Designing User Incentives For Cybersecurity

By Terrence August, Robert August, Hyoduk Shin

Communications of the ACM, Vol. 57 No. 11, Pages 43-46

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The traditional "patching" approach to managing software vulnerabilities and cybersecurity risk has been less effective than desired. In theory, once a vulnerability is discovered, software patches should be quickly developed and released by producers and then expeditiously applied by users. Successful completion of this process would help to maintain secure systems. However, what has been consistently observed in practice is that this process instead breaks down.7 Of particular concern is the failure of the current approach to adequately address the economic incentives that underlie users' decisions to patch their systems. We propose a simple adaptation to software producer offerings ("versions") involving users' patching rights and argue why this change would make a patching approach more effective.

In particular, we advocate that users should be charged for the right to control patching of their own individual copies of software. That is, a user's ability to choose whether to install patches should no longer be an implicit right. Rather, a user who prefers to retain the ability to choose whether and when to patch would need to pay a certain price; one can think of this fee as the price to cause additional security risk (perhaps temporarily) which has negative consequences on other users and the software producer. A user who chooses to forgo this right, and not pay the premium, has his or her system automatically updated with security patches as soon as they are released. Framed differently, a user can choose whether to purchase a "discounted," default version that is automatically updated or a "premium" version that includes the right to patch at one's convenience or even not at all.


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