Its the psychology stupid: How heuristics explain software vulnerabilities and how priming can illuminate developers blind spots

Daniela Oliveira, Marissa Rosenthal, N. Morin, Kuo Chuan Yeh, Justin Cappos, Y. Zhuang

    Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


    Despite the security community s emphasis on the importance of building secure software, the number of new vulnerabilities found in our systems is increasing. In addition, vulnerabilities that have been studied for years are still commonly reported in vulnerability databases. This paper investigates a new hypothesis that software vulnerabilities are blind spots in developer s heuristic-based decision-making processes. Heuristics are simple computational models to solve problems without considering all the information available. They are an adaptive response to our short working memory because they require less cognitive effort. Our hypothesis is that as software vulnerabilities represent corner cases that exercise unusual information flows, they tend to be left out from the repertoire of heuristics used by developers during their programming tasks. To validate this hypothesis we conducted a study with 47 developers using psychological manipulation. In this study each developer worked for approximately one hour on six vulnerable programming scenarios. The sessions progressed from providing no information about the possibility of vulnerabilities, to priming developers about unexpected results, and explicitly mentioning the existence of vulnerabilities in the code. The results show that (i) security is not a priority in software development environments, (ii) security is not part of developer s mindset while coding, (iii) developers assume common cases for their code, (iv) security thinking requires cognitive effort, (v) security education helps, but developers can have difficulties correlating a particular learned vulnerability or security information with their current working task, and (vi) priming or explicitly cueing about vulnerabilities on-the-spot is a powerful mechanism to make developers aware about potential vulnerabilities.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Number of pages10
    StatePublished - Dec 8 2014
    Event30th Annual Computer Security Applications Conference, ACSAC 2014 - New Orleans, United States
    Duration: Dec 8 2014Dec 12 2014


    Other30th Annual Computer Security Applications Conference, ACSAC 2014
    Country/TerritoryUnited States
    CityNew Orleans

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Software
    • Human-Computer Interaction
    • Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition
    • Computer Networks and Communications


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