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net.wars: Paul Revere's printing press

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 25 November 2011


There is nothing more frustrating than watching smart, experienced people reinvent known principles. Yesterday's Westminster Forum on cybersecurity was one such occasion. I don't blame them, or not exactly: it's just maddening that we have made so little progress, while the threats keep escalating. And it is from gatherings like this one that government policy is made.

Wendy M Grossman

Rephrasing Bill Clinton's campaign slogan, "It's the people, stupid," said Philip Virgo, chairman of the security panel of the IT Livery Company, to kick off the day, a sentiment echoed repeatedly by nearly every other speaker. Yes, it's the people – who trust when they shouldn't, who attach personal devices to corporate networks, who disclose passwords when they shouldn't, who are targeted by today's Facebook-friending social engineers. So how many people experts on the program? None. Psychologists? No. Nor any usability experts or people whose jobs revolve around communication, either. (Or women, but I'm prepared to regard that as a separate issue.)

Smart, experienced guys, sure, who did a great job of outlining problems and a few possible solutions. Somewhere toward the end of the proceedings, someone allowed in passing that yes, it's not a good idea to require people to use passwords that are too complex to remember easily. This is the state of their art? It's 12 years since Angela Sasse and Anne Adams covered this territory in Users Are Not the Enemy. Sasse has gone on to help found the field of security economics, which seeks to quantify the cost of poorly designed security – not just in data breaches and DoS attacks but in the lost productivity of frustrated, overburdened users. Sasse argues that the problem isn't so much the people as user-hostile systems and technology.

"As user-friendly as a cornered rat," Virgo says he wrote of security software back in 1983. Anyone who's looked at configuring a firewall lately knows things haven't changed that much. In a world of increasingly mass-market software and devices, security software has remained resolutely elitist: confusing error messages, difficult configuration, obscure technology. How many users know what to do when their browser says a Web site certificate is invalid? Or how to answer anti-virus software that asks whether you want to authorise HIPS/RegMod-007?

"The current approach is not working," said William Beer, director of information security and cybersecurity for PriceWaterhouseCoopers. "There is too much focus on technology, and not enough focus from business and government leaders." How about academics and consumers, too?

There is no doubt, though, that the threats are escalating. Twenty years ago, the biggest worry was that a teenaged kid would write a virus that spread fast and furious in the hope of getting on the evening news. Today, an organized criminal underground uses personal information to target a small group of users inside RSA, leveraging that into a threat to major systems worldwide. (Trend Micro CTO Andy Dancer said the attack began in the real world with a single user befriended at their church. I can't find verification, however.)

The big issue, said Martin Smith, CEO of The Security Company, is that "There's no money in getting the culture right." What's to sell if there's no technical fix? Like when your plane is held to ransom by the pilot, or when all it takes to publish 250,000 US diplomatic cables is one alienated, low-ranked person with a DVD burner and a picture of Lady Gaga? There's a parallel here to pharmaceuticals: one reason we have few weapons to combat rampaging drug resistance is that for decades developing new antibiotics was not seen as a profitable path.

Granted, you don't, as Dancer said afterwards, want to frame security as an issue of "fixing the people" (but we already know better than that). Nor is it fair to ban company employees from social media lest some attacker pick it up and use it to create a false sense of trust. Banning the latest new medium, said former GCHQ head John Bassett, is just the instinctive reaction in a disturbance; in 1775 Boston the "problem" was Paul Revere's printing press stirring up trouble.

Nor do I, personally, want to live in a trust-free world. I'm happy to assume the server next to me is compromised, but "Trust no one" is a lousy way to live.

Since perfect security is not possible, Dancer advised, organizations should plan for the worst. Good advice. When did I first hear it? Twenty years ago and most months since, by Peter Neumann in his RISKS Forum. It is depressing and frustrating that we are still having this conversation as if it were new – and that we will have it all over again over the next decade as smart meters roll out to 26 million British households by 2020, opening up the electrical grid to attacks that are already being predicted and studied.

Neumann – and Dancer – is right. There is no perfect security because it's in no one's interest to create it. Plan for the worst.

To Gene Spafford, 1989: "The only truly secure system is one that is powered off, cast in a block of concrete, and sealed in a lead-lined room protected by armed guards – and even then I have my doubts."

For everything else, there's a stolen Mastercard.

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.


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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).