Usable Security as a Static-Analysis Problem: Modeling and Reasoning About User Permissions in Social-Sharing Systems

Hannah Quay-de la Vallee, James M. Walsh, William Zimrin, Kathi Fisler, Shriram Krishnamurthi

SPLASH Onward!, 2013


The privacy policies of many websites, especially those designed for sharing data, are a product of many inputs. They are defined by the program underlying the website, by user configurations (such as privacy settings), and by the interactions that interfaces enable with the site. A website’s security thus depends partly on users’ ability to effectively use security mechanisms provided through the interface.

Questions about the effectiveness of an interface are typically left to manual evaluation by user-experience experts. However, interfaces are generated by programs and user input is received and processed by programs. This suggests that aspects of usable security could also be approached as a program-analysis problem.

This paper establishes a foundation on which to build formal analyses for usable security. We define a formal model for data-sharing websites. We adapt a set of design principles for usable security to modern websites and formalize them with respect to our model. In the formalization, we decompose each principle into two parts: one amenable to formal analysis, and another that requires manual evaluation by a designer. We demonstrate the potential of this approach through a preliminary analysis of models of actual sites.



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