Software Integrity Blog


Kapow! Comic book security

Everyone agrees that user education plays an important role in security, but does it really have to be so boring? How many security basics courses droning on about password security must we suffer through before we hit on a better way? Can cartoons and comics help?

Cartoons certainly have popular appeal. They can get important messages across in a concise way. They can even be funny, boosting the chances that they’ll spread far and wide (like the latest silly YouTube video). Plus, animated cartoons can be used to present very complex material in an easily digestible form—especially useful when such description requires an element of time.

Before we jump into the security cartoon pond, I have a confession to make—every night I read the comics pages published by my local paper, the Washington Post. I’m not sure I learn anything, but it sure is fun. This nightly ritual may color my thinking about security cartoons.

Cartoons for the masses

Security gurus often glibly state that if it weren’t for users, we wouldn’t have any security problems. Is this anything more than a good laugh line? User behavior alone clearly can’t single-handedly solve the security problem, but some critical aspects of security do in fact hinge on user behavior. Think about malicious code propagation through attachments in popular office formats like Adobe PDF for just a moment, and you’ll see what I mean.

The problem is that security can be complicated, and to non-geeks who don’t really grok technology (and who really don’t want to), the right security decisions can sometimes be hard to make. This is particularly apparent when it comes to user-faced attacks like phishing and pharming. How could opening an attachment really be that big a problem? Anyone even remotely familiar with security knows the answer, but many millions of others think security people are overly paranoid and only want to ensure nobody ever gets any work done. This is a situation where comics can help.

Markus Jakobsson and Sukamol Srikwan are academics who specialize in computer security. Markus is particularly well-known among scientific researchers for his work in e-crime with a focus (and some impressively-heavy published tomes) on phishing and pharming. Markus and Sukamol believe that poor user education is an important risk that must be addressed if we want to get a handle on identity theft and botnets. To address the awareness problem, they created a website called is devoted to describing user-related security issues in easy ways. The material published so far covers spoofing, malware, phishing, pharming, passwords, and electronic voting.

In an academic paper, Markus and Sukamol discuss the reasons they believe cartoons are an effective education technique. You can download their paper Using Cartoons to Teach Internet Security from the DIMACS website. In the paper, they describe the reasons they created and cover a number of technical examples of what works and what doesn’t in terms of user education. Critical to their approach is a focus on what and why (and not just what) behind real user-faced attacks. Using an entertaining medium helps solve a difficult problem.

Cartoons for security people

The use of cartoons does not need to be limited to non-technical users. Even experienced security people can benefit from cartoons. As an example, consider the well-publicized but not that well-understood cross-site scripting (XSS) attack.

Here’s how Greg Hoglund and I introduce XSS in Chapter 5 of Exploiting Software (Addison-Wesley 2004):

Cross-site scripting (XSS) has become a popular subject in security, but XSS is really only yet another example of in-band signals being interpreted by client software—in this case, the Web browser. XSS is a popular attack because Web sites are both common and numerous.

To carry out an XSS attack, an attacker can place a booby trap within data using special escape codes. This is a modern form of using terminal escape codes in filenames or talk requests. The terminal, in this case, is the Web browser that includes advanced features such as the capability to run embedded Javascripts. An attack can inject some toxic Javascript or some other mobile code element into data that are later read and executed by another user of the server. The code executes on the victim’s client machine, sometimes causing havoc for the victim. Figure 5–1 shows an example of Web-based XSS in action.

Illustration of cross-site scripting (XSS)
Find that explanation a bit opaque? Many people do. The problem is the nature of XSS, which unfolds over time.

An animated cartoon can itself unfold over time and make understanding XSS much easier. Markus Schumacher of the German company Virtual Forge GmbH has created a number of movies describing complicated security attacks. His explanations not only describe the what and why (as user-related cartoons must do as I describe above) but also covers the how in explicit detail. These kinds of movies are extremely useful as technical training examples.

My all-time favorite security cartoons are those that use humor. There are numerous web-based cartoons that cover technical issues. One called xkcd describes itself as a “webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language.” xkcd sometimes covers security issues. In a strip entitled Exploits of a Mom, xkcd covers SQL injection (another very popular attack that is not well-understood) in a very silly fashion. This comic was so popular that I got pointers to it from five different people over the course of a week as it made the email rounds. Check it out yourself. I think you’ll find it pretty funny.

In the end, I think it’s clear that cartoons can help with the education problem. They are certainly far less boring than generic training!


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