Risk Analysis

Setting Priorities in Behavioral Interventions: An Application to Reducing Phishing Risk

Journal Article


Phishing risk is a growing area of concern for corporations, governments, and individuals. Given the evidence that users vary widely in their vulnerability to phishing attacks, we demonstrate an approach for assessing the benefits and costs of interventions that target the most vulnerable users. Our approach uses Monte Carlo simulation to (1) identify which users were most vulnerable, in signal detection theory terms; (2) assess the proportion of system‐level risk attributable to the most vulnerable users; (3) estimate the monetary benefit and cost of behavioral interventions targeting different vulnerability levels; and (4) evaluate the sensitivity of these results to whether the attacks involve random or spear phishing. Using parameter estimates from previous research, we find that the most vulnerable users were less cautious and less able to distinguish between phishing and legitimate emails (positive response bias and low sensitivity, in signal detection theory terms). They also accounted for a large share of phishing risk for both random and spear phishing attacks. Under these conditions, our analysis estimates much greater net benefit for behavioral interventions that target these vulnerable users. Within the range of the model's assumptions, there was generally net benefit even for the least vulnerable users. However, the differences in the return on investment for interventions with users with different degrees of vulnerability indicate the importance of measuring that performance, and letting it guide interventions. This study suggests that interventions to reduce response bias, rather than to increase sensitivity, have greater net benefit.

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