A news story that hit the wires last week was that someone with a history of breaking into systems, who had “reformed” and acted as a security consultant, was arrested for new criminal behavior. The press and blogosphere seemed to treat this as surprising. They shouldn’t have.
I have been speaking and writing for nearly two decades on this general issue, as have others (William Hugh Murray, a pioneer and thought leader in security, is one who comes to mind). Firms that hire “reformed” hackers to audit or guard their systems are not acting prudently any more than if they hired a “reformed” pedophile to babysit their kids. First of all, the ability to hack into a system involves a skill set that is not identical to that required to design a secure system or to perform an audit. Considering how weak many systems are, and how many attack tools are available, “hackers” have not necessarily been particularly skilled. (The same is true of “experts” who discover attacks and weaknesses in existing systems and then publish exploits, by the way—that behavior does not establish the bona fides for real expertise. If anything, it establishes a disregard for the community it endangers.)
More importantly, people who demonstrate a questionable level of trustworthiness and judgement at any point by committing criminal acts present a risk later on. Certainly it is possible that they will learn the error of their ways and reform. However, it is also the case that they may slip later and revert to their old ways. Putting some of them in situations of trust with access to items of value is almost certainly too much temptation. This has been established time and again in studies of criminals of all types, especially those who commit fraud. So, why would a prudent manager take a risk when better alternatives are available?
Even worse, circulating stories of criminals who end up as highly-paid consultants are counterproductive, even if they are rarely true. That is the kind of story that may tempt some without strong ethics to commit crimes as a shortcut to fame and riches. Additionally, it is insulting to the individuals who work hard, study intently, and maintain a high standard of conduct in their careers—hiring criminals basically states that the honest, hardworking real experts are fools. Is that the message we really want to put forward?
Luckily, most responsible managers now understand, even if the press and general public don’t, that criminals are simply that—criminals. They may have served their sentences, which now makes them former criminals…but not innocent. Pursuing criminal activity is not—and should not be—a job qualification or career path in civilized society. There are many, many historical examples we can turn to for examples, including those of hiring pirates as privateers and train robbers as train guards. Some took the opportunity to go straight, but the instances of those who abused trust and made off with what they were protecting illustrate that it is a big risk to take. It also is something we have learned to avoid. We are long past the point where those of us in computing should get with the program.
So, what of the argument that there aren’t enough real experts, or they cost too much to hire? Well, what is their real value? If society wants highly-trained and trustworthy people to work in security, then society needs to devote more resources to support the development of curriculum and professional standards. And it needs to provide reasonable salaries to those people, both to encourage and reward their behavior and expertise. We’re seeing more of that now than a dozen years ago, but it is still the case that too many managers (and government officials) want security on the cheap, and then act surprised when they get hacked. I suppose they also buy their Rolex and Breitling watches for $50 from some guy in a parking lot and then act surprised and violated when the watch stops a week later. What were they really expecting?
Lots of new papers added this week—more that we can list here. Check the Reports and Papers Archive for more.
[tags]cyber warfare, cyber terrorism, cyber crime, Estonia[/tags]
I am frequently asked about the likelihood of cyber war or cyber terrorism. I’m skeptical of either being a stand-alone threat, as neither is likely to serve the goals of those who would actually wage warfare or commit terrorism.
The incidents in Estonia earlier this year were quite newsworthy and brought more people out claiming it was cyber terrorism or cyber warfare. Nonsense! It wasn’t terrorism, because it didn’t terrorize anyone—although it did annoy the heck out of many. And as far as warfare goes, nothing was accomplished politically, and the “other side” was never even formally identified.
Basically, in Estonia there was a massive outbreak of cyber vandalism and cyber crime.
Carolyn Duffy Marsan did a nice piece in Network World on this topic. She interviewed a number of people, and wrote it up clearly. I especially like it because she quoted me correctly! You can check out the article here: How close is World War 3.0? - Network World. I think it represents the situation quite appropriately.
[As a humorous aside, I happened to do a search on the Network World site to see if another interview had appeared without me hearing about it. I found this item that had appeared in December of 2006 and I didn’t know about it until now! Darn, and to think I could have started recruiting minions in January. ]
Satire is sometimes a great way to get a point across. Or multiple points. I think this little clip is incredibly funny and probably insightful.
[tags]news, cell phones, reports, security vulnerabilities, hacking, computer crime, research priorities, forensics, wiretaps[/tags]
The Greek Cell Phone Incident
A great story involving computers and software, even though the main hack was against cell phones:
IEEE Spectrum: The Athens Affair. From this we can learn all sorts of lessons about how to conduct a forensic investigation, retention of logs, wiretapping of phones, and more.
Now, imagine VoIP and 802.11 networking and vulnerabilities in routers and…. —the possibilities get even more interesting. I suspect that there’s a lot more eavesdropping going on than most of us imagine, and certainly more than we discover.
NRC Report Released
Last week, the National Research Council announced the release of a new report: Towards a Safer and More Secure Cyberspace. The report is notable in a number of ways, and should be read carefully by anyone interested in cyber security. I think the authors did a great job with the material, and they listened to input from many sources.
There are 2 items I specifically wish to note:
Evolution of Computer Crime
Speaking of my alleged expertise at augury, I noted something in the news recently that confirmed a prediction I made nearly 8 years ago at a couple of invited talks: that online criminals would begin to compete for “turf.” The evolution of online crime is such that the “neighborhood” where criminals operate overlaps with others. If you want the exclusive racket on phishing, DDOS extortion, and other such criminal behavior, you need to eliminate (or absorb) the competition in your neighborhood. But what does that imply when your “turf” is the world-wide Internet?
The next step is seeing some of this spill over into the physical world. Some of the criminal element online is backed up by more traditional organized crime in “meat space.” They will have no compunction about threatening—or disabling—the competition if they locate them in the real world. And they may well do that because they also have developed sources inside law enforcement agencies and they have financial resources at their disposal. I haven’t seen this reported in the news (yet), but I imagine it happening within the next 2-3 years.
Of course, 8 years ago, most of my audiences didn’t believe that we’d see significant crime on the net—they didn’t see the possibility. They were more worried about casual hacking and virus writing. As I said above, however, one only needs to study human nature and history, and the inevitability of some things becomes clear, even if the mechanisms aren’t yet apparent.
The Irony Department
GAO reported a little over a week ago that DHS had over 800 attacks on their computers in two years. I note that the report is of detected attacks. I had one top person in DC (who will remain nameless) refer to DHS as “A train wreck crossed with a nightmare, run by inexperienced political hacks” when referring to things like TSA, the DHS cyber operations, and other notable problems. For years I (and many others) have been telling people in government that they need to set an example for the rest of the country when it comes to cyber security. It seems they’ve been listening, and we’ve been negligent. From now on, we need to stress that they need to set a good example.
[posted with ecto]
One of the key properties that works against strong security is complexity. Complexity poses problems in a number of ways. The more complexity in an operating system, for instance, the more difficult it is for those writing and maintaining it to understand how it will behave under extreme circumstances. Complexity makes it difficult to understand what is needed, and thus to write fault-free code. Complex systems are more difficult to test and prove properties about. Complex systems are more difficult to properly patch when faults are found, usually because of the difficulty in ensuring that there are no side-effects. Complex systems can have backdoors and trojan code implanted that is more difficult to find because of complexity. Complex operations tend to have more failure modes. Complex operations may also have longer windows where race conditions can be exploited. Complex code also tends to be bigger than simple code, and that means more opportunity for accidents, omissions and manifestation of code errors.
It is simple that complexity creates problems.
Saltzer and Schroeder identified it in their 1972 paper in CACM. They referred to “economy of mechanism” as their #1 design principle for secure systems.
Some of the biggest problems we have now in security (and arguably, computing) are caused by “feature creep” as we continue to expand systems to add new features. Yes, those new features add new capabilities, but often the additions are foisted off on everyone whether they want them or not. Thus, everyone has to suffer the consequences of the next exapnded release of Linux, Windows (Vista), Oracle, and so on. Many of the new features are there as legitimate improvements for everyone, but some are of interest to only a minority of users, and others are simply there because the designers thought they might be nifty. And besides, why would someone upgrade unless there were lots of new features?
Of course, this has secondary effects on complexity in addition to the obvious complexity of a system with new features. One example has to do with backwards compatibility. Because customers are unlikely to upgrade to the new, improved product if it means they have to throw out their old applications and data, the software producers need to provide extra code for compatibility with legacy systems. This is not often straight-forward—it adds new complexity.
Another form of complexity has to do with hardware changes. The increase in software complexity has been one motivating factor for hardware designers, and has been for quite some time. Back in the 1960s when systems began to support time sharing, virtual memory became a necessity, and the hardware mechanisms for page and segment tables needed to be designed into systems to maintain reasonable performance. Now we have systems with more and more processes running in the background to support the extra complexity of our systems, so designers are adding extra processing cores and support for process scheduling.
Yet another form of complexity is involved with the user interface. The typical user (and especially the support personnel) now have to master many new options and features, and understand all of their interactions. This is increasingly difficult for someone of even above-average ability. It is no wonder that the average home user has myriad problems using their systems!
Of course, the security implications of all this complexity have been obvious for some time. Rather than address the problem head-on by reducing the complexity and changing development methods (e.g., use safer tools and systems, with more formal design), we have recently seen a trend towards virtualization. The idea is that we confine our systems (operating systems, web services, database, etc) in a virtual environment supported by an underlying hypervisor. If the code breaks…or someone breaks it…the virtualization contains the problems. At least, in theory. And now we have vendors providing chipsets with even more complicated instruction sets to support the approach. But this is simply adding yet more complexity. And that can’t be good in the long run. Already attacks have been formulated to take advantage of these added “features.”
We lose many things as we make systems more complex. Besides security and correctness, we also end up paying for resources we don’t use. And we are also paying for power and cooling for chips that are probably more powerful than we really need. If our software systems weren’t doing so much, we wouldn’t need quite so much power “under the hood” in the hardware.
Although one example is hardly proof of this general proposition, consider the results presented in 86 Mac Plus Vs. 07 AMD DualCore. A 21-year old system beat a current top-of-the-line system on the majority of a set of operations that a typical user might perform during a work session. On your current system, do a “ps” or run the task manager. How many of those processes are really contributing to the tasks you want to carry out? Look at the memory in use—how much of what is in use is really needed for the tasks you want to carry out?
Perhaps I can be accused of being a reactionary ( a nice word meaning “old fart:”), but I remember running Unix in 32K of memory. I wrote my first full-fledged operating system with processes, a file system, network and communication drivers, all in 40K. I remember the community’s efforts in the 1980s and early 1990s to build microkernels. I remember the concept of RISC having a profound impact on the field as people saw how much faster a chip could be if it didn’t need to support complexity in the instruction set. How did we get from there to here?
Perhaps the time is nearly right to have another revolution of minimalism. We have people developing low-power chips and tiny operating systems for sensor-based applications. Perhaps they can show the rest of us some old ideas made new.
And for security? Well, I’ve been trying for several years to build a system (Poly^2) that minimalizes the OS to provide increased security. To date, I haven’t had much luck in getting sufficient funding to really construct a proper prototype; I currently have some funding from NSF to build a minimal version, but the funding won’t allow anything close to a real implementation. What I’m trying to show is too contrary to conventional wisdom. It isn’t of interest to the software or hardware vendors because it is so contrary to their business models, and the idea is so foreign to most of the reviewers at funding agencies who are used to build ever more complex systems.
Imagine a system with several dozen (or hundred) processor cores. Do we need process scheduling and switching support if we have a core for each active process? Do we need virtual memory support if we have a few gigabytes of memory available per core? Back in the 1960s we couldn’t imagine such a system, and no nation or company could afford to build one. But now that wouldn’t even be particularly expensive compared to many modern systems. How much simpler, faster, and more secure would such a system be? In 5 years we may be able to buy such a system on a single chip—will we be ready to use it, or will we still be chasing 200 million line operating systems down virtual rat holes?
So, I challenge my (few) readers to think about minimalism. If we reduce the complexity of our systems what might we accomplish? What might we achieve if we threw out the current designs and started over from a new beginning and with our current knowledge and capabilities?
[Small typo fixed 6/21—thanks cfr]
Copyright © 2007 by E. H. Spafford
[posted with ecto]
In my last post, I ranted about a government site making documents available only in Word. A few people have said to me “Get over it—use OpenOffice instead of the Microsoft products.” The problem is that those are potentially dangerous too—there is too much functionality (some of it may be undocumented, too) in Word (and Office) documents.
Now, we have a virus specific to OpenOffice. We’ve had viruses that run in emulators, too. Trying to be compatible with something fundamentally flawed is not a security solution. That’s also my objection to virtualization as a “solution” to malware.
I don’t mean to be unduly pejorative, but as the saying goes, even if you put lipstick on a pig, it is still a pig.
Word and the other Office components are useful programs, but if MS really cared about security, they would include a transport encoding that didn’t include macros and potentially executable attachments—and encourage its use! RTF is probably that encoding for text documents, but it is not obvious to the average user that it should be used instead of .doc format for exchanging files. And what is there for Excel, Powerpoint, etc?
Earlier, I wrote about the security risks of using Microsoft Word documents as a presentation and encoding format for sending files via email (see posts here and here). Files in “.doc” format contain macros, among other things, that could be executable. They also have metadata fields that might give away sensitive information, and a lot of undocumented cruft that may be used in the process of exploiting security. It is no wonder that exotic exploits are showing up for Word documents. And only today it was revealed that the latest version of Office 2007 may not have even gotten the most recent patch set.
Want to find some vulnerabilities in Word? Then take a look at the list of US-CERT alerts on that software; my search returns almost 400 hits. Some of these are not yet patched, and there are likely many as-yet unpatched flaws still in there.
Clearly, the use of Word as a document exchange medium is Bad (that’s with a definite capital B). People who understand good security practices do not exchange Word files unless they are doing collaborative editing, and even then it is better to use RTF (if one continues to be beholden to Microsoft formats). Good security hygiene means warning others, and setting a good example.
Now, consider that DHS has released BAA07-09 to solicit research and prototypes to get fixes for current cyber infrastructure vulnerabilities. I could rant about how they claim it is for R&D but is really a BAA for further product development for fundamentally flawed software that cannot be fixed. But that isn’t the worst part. No, the BAA is only available as Word documents!
Update: A response from Dr. Douglas Maughn at DHS points out that the site I indicated for the BAA is actually FedBizOps rather than DHS. The DHS posting site actually has it in PDF…although the FedBizOps link is the one I’ve seen in several articles (and in a posting in SANS NewsBites).
Of course, it would be great if DHS could get the folks at FedBizOps to clean up their act, but at least in this case, DHS—or rather, DHSARPA—got it right. I stand corrected.
[tags]Google, spam, 419[/tags]
I recently blogged about some unsolicited email I received from a recruiter at Google. Much to my surprised, I was shortly thereafter contacted by two senior executives at Google (both of whom I know). Each apologized for the contact I had received; one assured me he would put in a positive recommendation if I wanted that sys admin position.
I have been assured that there will be some re-examination made of how these contacts are made. So, score one for my blog changing the world! Or something like it.
[posted with ecto]