Science “of” or “for” security?

The choice of preposition – science of security versus science for security – marks an important difference in mental orientation. This post grew out of a conversation last year with Roy Maxion, Angela Sasse and David Pym. Clarifying this small preposition will help us set expectations, understand goals, and ultimately give appropriately targeted advice on how to do better security research.

These small words (for vs. of) unpack into some big differences. Science for security seems to mean taking any scientific discipline or results and using that to make decisions about information security. Thus, “for” is agnostic as to whether there is any work within security that looks like science. Like the trend for evidence-based medicine, science for security would advocate for evidence-based security decisions. This view is advocated by RISCS here in the UK and is probably consistent with approaches like the New School of Information Security.

Science for security does not say security is not science. More accurately, it seems not to care. The view is agnostic and seems to say it does not matter whether security is science. The point seems to be there is enough difficulty in adapting other sciences for use by security, and that applying the methods of other sciences to security-relevant problems is what matters. There are many examples of this approach, in different flavours. We can see at least three: porting concepts, re-situating approaches, and borrowing methods. We’re adapting these first two from Morgan (2014).

Porting concepts

Economics of infosec is its own discipline (WEIS). The way Anderson (2001) applies economics is to take established principles in economics to shed light on established difficulties in infosec.

Re-situating approaches

This is when some other science understands something, and we generalise from that instance and try to make a concrete application to security. We might argue that program verification takes this approach, re-situating understanding from mathematics and logic. Studies on keystroke dynamics also re-situate the understanding of human psychology and physical forensics.

Borrowing methods

We might study a security phenomenon according to the methods of an established discipline. Usable security largely applies psychology- and sociology-based methods, for example. Of course, there are specific challenges that might arise in studying a new area such as security (Krol et al., 2016), but the approach is science for security because the challenges result in minor tweaks to the method of the home discipline.

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