‘The Google Effect’ – the thought that our reliance on the internet is making us dumber – was first put forward by Professor Betsy Sparrow of the University of Columbia, Professor Daniel Wegner of Harvard University and Jenny Liu of the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2011.
Psychologists posited that our increased use of the web to discover new information was actually detrimental to our mental acuities because we had the ability to continually surf to the information we required, when we needed it, and didn’t have to commit as much to memory as in years gone by.
The theory, arguably since proven, has since been expanded upon by Kaspersky Lab which conducted its own survey into the effect it refers to as Digital Amnesia.
Focusing on UK consumers and the use of mobile devices, the study revealed how the majority of consumers in Blighty can no longer recall phone numbers from their own memory, instead having to rely on the digital memory stored within their handset. Now, before you think that’s just common sense in a world where we all have hundreds of ‘friends’ and ‘contacts’ due to our immersion in social networks, Kaspersky determined that it is not just the vaguest of phone numbers that pass through our sieve-like heads – we actually struggle to remember our kids’ phone numbers, our significant other’s number and even the digits required to call into work.
Offering up light proof that it’s a tech thing, the survey determined that respondents were better at remembering numbers from the past – about the same number of respondents knew their home phone number from when they were kids as knew their current partner’s number.
So, what does this mean from a security perspective?
As you may imagine, Kaspersky has an interest in certain products and services, so it’s hardly surprising to realise that our inability to recall simple strings of numbers, associated with people we presumably care about, can be tied to their business model.
That aside, another survey of 6,000 European consumers – aged 16 and over – threw up some interesting data:
Just over half of the respondents (53%) in the 16-24 year-old range said they relied upon their smartphone to store everything they feel they need to know.
What if that smartphone became lost or stolen? Do they have backups of their data? Tracking apps installed?
According to the survey, the answers are probably not what we’d hope – 40% of the younger age group and 44% of women said they would be devastated if they lost their device because they had priceless memories stored on them. Thirty-eight and twenty-five percent respectively said the loss of their device would leave them in a panic as they had no backups.
The study – and this is Kaspersky’s angle – also discovered that only around a quarter of all smartphone users install any kind of security software.
Ok, so maybe it could be argued that the security threats seen in the media are a tad overplayed, at least where some mobile OSes are concerned, but its still alarming that people are not taking security seriously with every device they own, especially as we head into an ever more interconnected world.
David Emm, Principal Security Researcher, Kaspersky Lab had the following to say:
Connected devices enrich our lives but they have also given rise to Digital Amnesia. We need to understand the long term implications of this for how we remember and how we protect those memories. The phone numbers of those who matter most to us are now just a click away – so we no longer bother to memorise the details. Further, an overwhelming 86% of those surveyed say that in our increasingly hyper-connected world people simply have too many numbers, addresses, handles etc. for them to remember even if they wanted to. We discovered that the loss or compromise of this precious information would not just be an inconvenience, it would leave many people deeply distressed.
Interestingly, what Emm and the report failed to address was a far more obvious problem associated with shrinking memories – the topic of passwords.
We’ve all read the post-breach stories and ingested the advice about never using the same password twice and always picking complex credentials that don’t look like ‘123456’ or ‘passw0rd’.
And we all know that people continue to make the same bad choices regardless.
Perhaps now, we can look at the Google Effect and have some sympathy, or at least some understanding, for why some people keep on trying to keep things simple, why they store passwords in their phones, or on post-it notes.
Such activity may seem silly to some of us but there’s a huge difference between someone who is paid to be security conscious for a living and someone who is not.
As we’ve said before, and will say again, security is all about people. Or at least it should be.
Smartphone apps, password managers – pah! – what good are they if we can’t get the right messages out to people who simply forget the importance of what we take for granted.
More awareness is certainly required.
But sometimes I think we are taking the wrong approach – perhaps it’s security professionals who sometimes need the awareness training – so that they can then understand the topic from the point of view of those who reside outside of the industry?