net.wars: Automated systems all the way down

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 08 May 2009

Are users getting better or worse? Well - at what? you might ask. Naturally: at being thorns in the side of IT security people. Users see security as damage, and route around it.

Wendy M Grossman

You didn't need to look any further than this week's security workshop, where this question was asked, to see this principle in action. The hotel-supplied wireless was heavily filtered: Web and email access only, no VPNs, "undesirable" sites blocked.

Over lunch, the conversation: how to set up VPNs using port 443 to get around this kind of thing. The perfect balanced sample: everyone's a BOFH and a hostile user. Kind of like Jacqui Smith, who has announced plans to largely circumvent the European Court of Human Rights' ruling that Britain has to remove the DNA of innocent people from the database. Apparently, this government perceives European law as damage.

But the question about users was asked seriously. The workshop gathered security folks from all over to brain storm and compare notes: what are the emerging security threats? What should we be worrying about? And, most important, what should people be researching?

Three working groups – smart environments, malware and fraud, and critical systems – came up with three different lists, mostly populated with familiar stuff – but the familiar stuff keeps going and getting worse. According to Symantec's latest annual report spam, for example, was up 162 percent in 2008 over 2007, with a total of 349.6 billion messages sent - simply a staggering waste of resources. What has changed is targeting; new attacks are short-lived, small distribution affairs – much harder to shut down.

Less familiar to me was the "patch window" problem, which basically goes like this: it takes 24 hours for 80 percent of Windows users to get a new patch from Windows Update. An attacker who downloads the patch as soon as it's available can quickly – within minutes – reverse-engineer it to find out what bug(s) it's fixing. Then the attacker has most of a day in which to exploit the bug.

Last year, Carnegie-Mellon's David Brumley and others found a way to automate this process (PDF). An ironic corollary: the more bug-free the program, the easier a patch window attack becomes. Various solutions were discussed for this, none of them entirely satisfactory; the most likely was to roll out the patch locked, and distribute a key only after the download cycle is complete.

But back to the trouble with users: systems are getting more and more complex. A core router now has 5,000 lines of code; an edge router 11,000. Someone has to read and understand all those lines. And that's just one piece. "Today's networks are now so complex we don't understand them any more," said Cisco's Michael Behrenger. Critical infrastructures need to be more like the iPhone, a complex system that nonetheless just about anyone can operate.

As opposed, I guess, to being like what most people have now: systems that are a mish-mash of strategies for getting around things that don't work. But I do see his point. Once you could debug even a large network by reading the entire configuration. Pause to remember the early days of Demon Internet, when the technical support staff would debug your connection by directly editing the code of the dial-up software we were all using, KA9Q. If you'd taken those humans out of the system, no one could have gotten online.

It's my considered view that while you can blame users for some things – the one in 12.5 million spam recipients Christian Kreibich said actually buys the pharma products so advertised springs to mine – nonetheless blaming them in general is a lot like the old saw about how "only a poor workman blames his tools". It's more than 20 years since Donald Norman pointed out in The Design of Everyday Things that user error is often a result of poor system design.Yet a depressing percentage of security folks complaining about system complexity don't even know his name and a failure to understand human factors is security's single biggest failure.

Joseph Bonneau made this point in a roundabout way by considering Facebook which, he said, really is inventing the Web – not just in the rounded corners sense, but in the sense of inventing its own protocols for things for which standards already exist. Plus – and more important for the user question – it's training users to do things that security people would rather they didn't, like click on emailed links without checking the URLs. "Social networks," he said, "are repeating all the Web's security problems – phishing, spam, 419 scams, identity theft, malware, cross-site scripting, click fraud, stalking…privacy is the elephant in the room." Worse, "They really don't yet have a business model, which makes dealing with security difficult."

It's a typical scenario in computing, where each new generation reinvents every wheel. And that's the trouble with automation with everything, too. Have these people never used voice menus?

Get rid of the humans and replace them with automated systems that operate perfectly, great. But won't humans have to write the automated systems? No, automated systems will do that. And who will program those? Computers. And who…

Never mind...

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).