Posts tagged cyber-crime

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Cyber security challenges and windmills

[Note: the following is primarily about U.S. Government policies, but I believe several points can be generalized to other countries.]

I was editing a section of my website, when I ran across a link to a paper I had forgotten that I wrote. I'm unsure how many people actually saw it then or since. I know it faded from my memory! Other than CERIAS WWW sites and the AAAS itself, a Google search reveals almost no references to it.

As background, in early April of 2002, I was asked, somewhat at the last moment, to prepare a paper and some remarks on the state of information security for a forum, Technology in a Vulnerable World, held on science in the wake of 9/11. The forum was sponsored by the AAAS, and held later that month. There were interesting papers on public health, risk communication, the role of universities, and more, and all of them are available for download.

My paper in the forum wasn't one of my better ones, in that it was somewhat rushed in preparing it. Also, I couldn't find good background literature for some of what I was writing. As I reread what I wrote, many of the points I raised still don't have carefully documented sources in the open literature. However, I probably could have found some published backup for items such as the counts of computer viruses had I spent a little more time and effort on it. Mea culpa; this is something I teach my students about. Despite that, I think I did capture most of the issues that were involved at the time of the forum, and I don't believe there is anything in the paper that was incorrect at that time.

Why am I posting something here about that paper, One View of Protecting the National Information Infrastructure, written seven years ago? Well, as I reread it, I couldn't help but notice that it expressed some of the same themes later presented in the PITAC report, Cyber Security: A Crisis of Prioritization (2005), the NRC report Towards a Safer and More Secure Cyberspace (2007), and my recent Senate testimony (2009). Of course, many of the issues were known before I wrote my paper -- including coverage in the NRC studies Computers at Risk: Safe Computing in the Information Age (1991), Trust in Cyberspace (1999) and Cybersecurity Today and Tomorrow (2002) (among others I should have referenced). I can find bits and pieces of the same topics going further back in time. These issues seem to be deeply ingrained.

I wasn't involved in all of those cited efforts, so I'm not responsible for the repetition of the issues. Anyone with enough background who looks at the situation without a particular self-interest is going to come up with approximately the same conclusions -- including that market forces aren't solving the problem, there aren't enough resources devoted to long-term research, we don't have enough invested in education and training, we aren't doing enough in law enforcement and active defense, and we continue to spend massive amounts trying to defend legacy systems that were never designed to be secure.

Given these repeated warnings, it is troubling that we have not seen any meaningful action by government to date. However, that is probably preferable to government action that makes things worse: consider DHS as one notable example (or several).

Compounding the problem, too many leaders in industry are unwilling to make necessary, radical changes either, because such actions might disrupt their businesses, even if such actions are in the public good. It is one of those "tragedy of the commons" situations. Market forces have been shown to be ineffective in fixing the problems, and will actually lead to attempts to influence government against addressing urgent needs. Holding companies liable for their bad designs and mistakes, or restricting spending on items with known vulnerabilities and weaknesses would be in the public interest, but too many vendors affected would rather lobby against change than to really address the underlying problems.

Those of us who have been observing this problem for so long are therefore hoping that the administration's 60 day review provides strong impetus for meaningful changes that are actually adopted by the government. Somewhat selfishly, it would be nice to know that my efforts in this direction have not been totally in vain. But even if nothing happens, there is a certain sense of purpose in continuing to play the role of Don Quixote.

Sancho! Where did I leave my horse?

Why is it that Demotivators® seem so appropriate when talking about cyber security or government? If you are unfamiliar with, let me encourage you to explore the site and view the wonderfully twisted items they have for sale. In the interest of full disclosure, I have no financial interest or ties to the company, other than as a satisfied and cynical customer.

On a more academic note, you can read or purchase the NRC reports cited above online via the National Academies Press website.

This time, the Senate

On March 19, I had an opportunity to testify before the Senate Committee on on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. The hearing was entitled Cybersecurity -- Assessing Our Vulnerabilities and Developing An Effective Defense.

I was asked to include information on research problems, educational initiatives, and issues regarding the current state of cyber security in the nation.   As is usual for such things, the time between the invitation and the due date for written testimony was short. Thus, I didn't have the time to delve deeply into the topic areas, but could only address the things that I already had on hand -- including some posts from this blog that I had written before. The result was a little longer than the other statements, but I think I covered more ground.

One hint for people testifying before Congress on such things: you can't depend on how long you will have for spoken remarks, so be sure any points you want to make are in your written testimony. In this case, the hearing was limited to about 75 minutes because there were several votes scheduled on the Senate floor, and the committee needed to adjourn to allow the Senators to attend the votes. And, as is common for too many hearings, there weren't many of the committee members present; I believe the hearing began with only two of the 25 members present, and some movement of members in and out to reach a maximum of four seated at any one time. In this case, the chair (Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia) apologized to us several times for the low turnout. However, many (all?) of the staff and aides were present, so I'm certain the gist of the testimony presented will be considered.Spaf testifying

The Senator made a nice introductory statement.

My written testimony is available on my website as well as the committee site. My oral statement was from rough notes that I modified on the fly as I listened to the other testimony (by Jim Lewis, Eric Weiss and Ed Amoroso). That statement, and the whole hearing, are available via the archived hearing webcast (my remarks start at about 46:30 into the webcast). If I get a transcribed version of those remarks, I will post them along with my written testimony on my website in the "US government" section.

Comments by the other speakers were good overall and I think we collectively covered a lot of ground. The questions from the Senators present indicated that they were listening and knew some of the problems in the area. The comments from Senator Nelson about the intrusions into his systems were surprising: several Senate security staff were present at the hearing and indicated to me that his remarks were the first they had heard of the incidents! So, the hearing apparently set off an incident-response exercise -- separate from responding to my presence in the building, that is. grin

Will this hearing make a difference? I don't know. I've been testifying and saying the same things for over a dozen years (this was my 8th Congressional hearing testimony) and things haven't gotten that much better...and may even be worse. Senator Rockefeller has indicated he intends to introduce legislation supporting more funding for students studying cyber security issues. There was some good news coverage of all this (e.g., FCW and CNet).

I am told that there will be more hearings by this committee. Some House committees have been holding hearings too, and the President's 60 day review continues apace. The added attention is great, but with the sudden interest by so many, the result may be more confusion rather than resolution.

Stay tuned.

As a reminder, if you want to know about my occasional postings such as this but don't want to subscribe to the RSS feed,  you can subscribe to the mailing list.

Also as a reminder, there is my tumble blog on security issues, with links to items on the news and WWW of possible interest to those who find my ramblings and rants of interest.

Do we need a new Internet?

Short answer: " Almost certainly, no."  

Longer answer:

The blogosphere is abuzz with comments on John Markoff's Saturday NT Times piece, Do We Need a New Internet? John got some comments from me about the topic a few weeks back. Unfortunately, I don't think a new Internet will solve the problems we are facing.

David Akin, a journalist/blogger commented on nicely John's post. In it, he quoted one of my posts to Dave Farber's IP list, which I then turned into a longer post in this blog. Basically, I noted that the Internet itself is not the biggest problem. Rather, it is the endpoints, the policies, the economics, and the legal environment that make things so difficult. It is akin to trying to blame the postal service because people manage to break into our houses by slipping their arms through the mailslots or because we leave the door unlocked "just in case" a package is going to be delivered.

Consider that some estimates of losses as a result of computer crime and fraud are in the many billions of $$ per year. (Note my recent post on a part of this.) Consider how much money is repeatedly spent on reissuing credit and debit cards because of loss of card info, restoring systems from backups, trying to remove spyware, bots, viruses, and the like. Consider how much is spent on defensive mechanisms than only work in limited cases -- anti-virus, IDS, firewalls, DLP, and whatever the latest fad might be.

What effect does that play on global finances? It is certainly a major drag on the economy. This was one of the conclusions (albeit, described as "friction") of the CSTB report Towards a Safer and More Secure Cyberspace, which did not seem to get much attention upon release.

Now, think about the solutions being put forward, such as putting all your corporate assets and sensitive records "out in the cloud" somewhere, on servers that are likely less well-protected or isolated than the ones being regularly compromised at the banks and card processors. But it will look cheaper because organizations won't need to maintain resources in-house. And it is already being hyped by companies, and seemingly being promoted by the NSF and CCC as "the future." Who can resist the future?

Next, stir in the economic conditions where any talk is going to be dismissed immediately as "crazy" if it involves replacing infrastructure with something that (initially) costs more, or that needs more than a minor change of business processes. And let's not forget that when the economy goes bad, more criminal behavior is likely as people seek value wherever they can find it.

The institutional responses from government and big vendors will be more of the same: update the patches, and apply another layer of gauze.

I have long argued that we should carefully re-examine some of the assumptions underlying what we do rather than blindly continue doing the same things. People are failing to understand that many important things have changed since we first started building computing artifacts! That means we might have better solutions if we really thought about the underlying problems from first principles.

I recently suggested this rethinking of basic assumptions to a few senior leaders in computing research (who shall remain nameless, at least within this posting) and was derided for not thinking about "new frontiers" for research. There is a belief among some in the research community (especially at the top universities) that the only way we (as a community; or perhaps more pointedly, them and their students) will get more funding for research and that we (again, the royal "we") will get premier publications is by pushing "new" ideas. This is partly a fault of the government agencies and companies, which aren't willing to support revisiting basic ideas and concepts because they want fixes to their existing systems now!

One part that makes sense from Markoff's article is about the research team making something that is effectively "plug compatible" with existing systems. That is roughly where a longer-term solution lies. If we can go back and devise more secure systems and protocols, we don't need to deploy them everywhere at once: we gradually phase them in, exactly as we do periodic refreshes of current systems. There is not necessarily an impassible divide between what we need and what we can afford.

I'm sorry to say that I don't see necessary changes occurring any time soon. It would upset too much of the status quo for too many parties. Thus, the situation isn't going to get better -- it's going to get worse -- probably much worse. When we finally get around to addressing the problems, it will be more expensive and traumatic than it needed to be.

As I noted before:

"Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results."

Of course, my continued efforts to make this point could be branded insane. wink

An Aside

Over a decade ago, I gave several talks where I included the idea of having multiple "service network" layers on top of the Internet -- effectively VPNs. One such network would be governed by rules similar to those of the current Internet. A second would use cryptographic means to ensure that every packet was identified. This would be used for commercial transactions. Other such virtual networks would have different ground rules on authentication, anonymity, protocols and content. There would be contractual obligations to be followed to participate, and authorities could revoke keys and access for cause. Gateways would regulate which "networks" organizations could use. The end result would be a set of virtual networks on the Internet at large, similar to channels on a cable service. Some would be free-for-all and allow anonymous posting, but others would be much more regulated, because that is what is needed for some financial and government transactions.

I remember one audience at an early SANS conference at the time was so hostile to the idea that members began shouting objections before I could even finish my talk. I also couldn't find a venue willing to publish a speculative essay on the topic (although I admit I only tried 2-3 places before giving up). The general response was that it would somehow cut out the possibility for anonymous and experimental behavior because no one would want to use the unauthenticated channels. It was reminiscent of the controversy when I was the lead in the Usenet "Great Renamng."   

The problem, of course, is that if we try to support conflicting goals such as absolute anonymity and strong authentication on the same network we will fail at one or the other (or both). We can easily find situations where one or the other property (as simply two examples of properties at stake) is needed. So long as we continue to try to apply patches onto such a situation before reconsidering the basic assumptions, we will continue to have unhappy failures.

But as a bottom line, I simply want to note that there is more than one way to "redesign the Internet" but the biggest problems continue to be the users and their expectations, not the Internet itself.

Unsecured Economies, and Overly-secured Reports

The Report

Over the last few months, CERIAS faculty members Jackie Rees and Karthik Kannan have been busy analyzing data collected from IT executives around the world, and have been interviewing a variety of experts in cybercrime and corporate strategy. The results of their labors were published yesterday by the McAfee Corporation (a CERIAS Tier II partner) as the report Unsecured Economies: Protecting Vital Information.

The conclusions of the report are somewhat pessimistic about prospects for cyber security in the coming few years. The combination of economic pressures, weak efforts at law enforcement, international differences in perceptions of privacy and security, and the continuing challenges of providing secured computing are combining to place vast amounts of valuable intellectual property (IP) at risk. The report presents estimates that IP worth billions of dollars (US) was stolen or damaged last year, and we can only expect the losses to increase.

Additionally, the report details five general conclusions derived from the data:

  • The recession will put intellectual property at risk
  • There is considerable international variation in the commitment (management and resources) to protect cyber
  • Intellectual property is now an "international currency" that is as much a target as actual currency
  • Employees steal intellectual property for financial gain and competitive advantage
  • Geopolitical aspects present differing risk profiles for information stored "offshore" from "home" countries.

None of these should be a big surprise to anyone who has been watching the field or listening to those of us who are working in it. What is interesting about the report is the presented magnitude and distribution of the issues. This is the first truely global study of these issues, and thus provides an important step forward in understanding the scope of these issues.

I will repeat here some of what I wrote for the conclusion of the report; I have been saying these same things for many years, and the report simply underscores the importance of this advice:

“Information security has transformed from simply ’preventing bad things from happening ’into a fundamental business component.' C-level executives must recognize this change. This includes viewing cybersecurity as a critical business enabler rather than as a simple cost center that can be trimmed without obvious impact on the corporate bottom line; not all of the impact will be immediately and directly noticeable. In some cases, the only impact of degraded cybersecurity will be going from ‘Doing okay’ to ‘Completely ruined’ with no warning before the change.

Cybersecurity fills multiple roles in a company, and all are important for organizational health.

  • First, cybersecurity provides positive control over resources that provide the company a competitive advantage: intellectual property, customer information, trends and projections,financial and personnel records and so on. Poor security puts these resources at risk.
  • Second, good security provides executives with confidence that the data they are seeing is accurate and true, thus leading to sound decisions and appropriate compliance with regulation and policy
  • Third, strong cybersecurity supports businesses taking new risks and entering new markets with confidence in their ability to respond appropriately to change
  • And fourth, good cybersecurity is necessary to build and maintain a reputation for reliability and sound behavior, which in turn are necessary to attract and retain customers and partners.
  • This study clearly shows that some customers are unwilling to do business with entities they consider poorly secured. Given massive market failures, significant fraud and increasing threats of government oversight and regulation, companies with strong controls, transparent recordkeeping, agile infrastructures and sterling reputations are clearly at an advantage -- and strong cybersecurity is a fundamental component of all four. Executives who understand this will be able to employ cybersecurity as an organic element of company (and government) survival -- and growth.“

We are grateful to McAfee, Inc. for their support and assistance in putting this report together.

Getting the Report

Update: You can now download the report sans-registration from CERIAS.

Report cover The report is available at no charge and the PDF can be downloaded (click on the image of the report cover to the left, or here). Note that to download the report requires registration.

Some of you may be opposed to providing your contact information to obtain the report, especially as that information may be used in marketing. Personally, I believe that the registration should be optional. However, the McAfee corporation paid for the report, and they control the distribution.

As such, those of us at CERIAS will honor their decision.

However, I will observe that many other people object to these kinds of registration requirements (the NY Times is another notable example of a registration-required site). As a result, they have developed WWW applications, such as BugMeNot, which are freely available for others to use to bypass these requirements. Others respond to these requests by identifying company personnel from information on corporate sites and then using that information to register -- both to avoid giving out their own information and to add some noise to the data being collected.

None of us here at CERIAS are suggesting that you use one of the above-described methods. We do, however, encourage you to get the report, and to do so in an appropriate manner. We hope you will find it informative.

A Serious Threat to Online Trust

There are several news stories now appearing (e.g., Security News) about a serious flaw in how certificates used in online authentication are validated. Ed Felten gives a nice summary of how this affects online WWW site authentication in his Freedom to Tinker blog posting. Brian Krebs also has his usual readable coverage of the problem in his Washington Post article. Steve Bellovin has some interesting commentary, too, about the legal climate.

Is there cause to be concerned? Yes, but not necessarily about what is being covered in the media. There are other lessons to be learned from this.

Short tutorial

First, for the non-geek reader, I’ll briefly explain certificates.

Think about how, online, I can assure myself that the party at the other end of a link is really who they claim to be. What proof can they offer, considering that I don’t have a direct link? Remember that an attacker can send any bits down the wire to me and may access to faster computers than I do.

I can’t base my decision on how the WWW pages appear, or embedded images. Phishing, for instance, succeeds because the phishers set up sites with names and graphics that look like the real banks and merchants, and users trust the visual appearance. This is a standard difficulty for people—understanding the difference between identity (claiming who I am) and authentication (proving who I am).

In the physical world, we do this by using identity tokens that are issued by trusted third parties. Drivers licenses and passports are two of the most common examples. To get one, we need to produce sufficient proof of identity to a third party to meet its standards of proof. Then, the third party issues a document that is very difficult to forge (almost nothing constructed is impossible to forge or duplicate—but some things require so much time and expenditure it isn’t worthwhile). Because the criteria for proof of identity and strength of construction of the document are known, various other parties will accept the document as “proof” of identity. Of course, other problems occur that I’m not going to address—this USACM whitepaper (of which I was principal author) touches on many of them.

Now, in the online world we cannot issue or see physical documents. Instead, we use certificates. We do this by putting together an electronic document that gives the information we want some entity to certify as true about us. The format of this certificate is generally fixed by standards, the most common one being the X.509 suite. This document is sent to an organization known as a Certificate Authority (CA), usually along with a fee. The certificate authority is presumably well-known, and performs a check (to their own standards) that the information in the document is correct, and it has the right form. The CA then calculate a digital hash value of the data, and creates a digital signature of that hash value. This is then added to the certificate and sent back to the user. This is the equivalent of putting a signature on a license and then sealing it in plastic. Any alteration of the data will change the digital hash, and a third party will find that the new hash and the hash value signed with the key of the CA don’t match. The reason this works is that the hash function and encryption algorithm used are presumed to be so computationally difficult to forge that it is basically not possible.

As an example of a certificate , if you visit “” you can click on the little padlock icon that appears somewhere in the browser window frame (this is browser dependent) to view details of the CERIAS SSL certificate.

You can get more details on all this by reading the referenced Wikipedia pages, and by reading chapters 5 & 7 in Web Security, Privacy and Commerce.

Back to the hack

In summary, some CAs have been negligent about updating their certificate signing mechanisms in the wake of news that MD5 is weak, published back in 2004. The result is that malicious parties can generate and obtain a certificate “authenticating” them as someone else. What makes it worse is that the root certificate of most of these CAs are “built in” to browser and application trust lists to simplify look-up of new certificates. Thus, most people using standard WWW browsers can be fooled into thinking they have connected to real, valid sites—even through they are connecting to rogue sites.

The approach is simple enough: a party constructs two certificates. One is for the false identity she wishes to claim, and the other is real. She crafts the contents of the certificate so that the MD5 hash of the two, in canonical format, is the same. She submits the real identity certificate to the authority, which verifies her bona fides, and returns the certificate with the MD5 hash signed with the CA private key. Our protagonist then copies that signature to the false certificate, which has the same MD5 hash value and thus the same digital signature, and proceeds with her impersonation!

What makes this worse is that the false key she crafts is for a secondary certificate authority. She can publish this in appropriate places, and is now able to mint as many false keys as she wishes—and they will all have signatures that verify in the chain of trust back to the issuer! She can even issue these new certificates using a stronger hash algorithm than MD5!

What makes this even worse is that it has been known for years that MD5 is weak, yet some CAs have continued to use it! Particularly unfortunate is the realization that Lenstra, Wang and de Weger described how this could be done back in 2005. Methinks that may be grounds for some negligence lawsuits if anyone gets really burned by this….

And adding to the complexity of all this is the issue of certificates in use for other purposes. For example, certificates are used with encrypted S/MIME email to digitally sign messages. Certificates are used to sign ActiveX controls for Microsoft software. Certificates are used to verify the information on many identity cards, including (I believe) government-issued Common Access Cards (CAC). Certificates also provide identification for secured instant messaging sessions (e.g., iChat). There may be many other sensitive uses because certificates are a “known” mechanism. Cloud computing services , software updates, and more may be based on these same assumptions. Some of these services may accept and/or use certificates issued by these deficient CAs.


Fixing this is not trivial. Certainly, all CAs need to start issuing certificates based on other message digests, such as SHA-1. However, this will take time and effort, and may not take effect before this problem can be exploited by attackers. Responsible vendors will cease to issue certificates until they get this fixed, but that has an economic impact some many not wish to incur.

We can try to educate end-users about this, but the problem is so complicated with technical details, the average person won’t know how to actually make a determination about valid certificates. It might even cause more harm by leading people to distrust valid certificates by mistake!

It is not possible to simply say that all existing applications will no longer accept certificates rooted at those CAs, or will not accept certificates based on MD5: there are too many extant, valid certificates in place to do that. Eventually, those certificates will expire, and be replaced. That will eventually take care of the problem—perhaps within the space of the next 18 months or so (most certificates are issued for only a year at a time, in part for reasons such as this).

Vendors of applications, and especially WWW browsers, need to give careful thought about updates to their software to flag MD5-based certificates as deserving of special attention. This may or may not be a worthwhile approach, for the reason given above: even with a warning, too few people will be able to know what to do.

Bigger issue

We base a huge amount of trust on certificates and encryption. History has shown how easy it is to get implementations and details wrong. History has also shown how quickly things can be destabilized with advances in technology.

In particular, too many people and organizations take for granted the assumptions on which this vast certificate system is based. For instance, we assume that the hash/digest functions in use are computationally difficult to reverse or cause collisions. We also assume that certain mathematical functions underlying public/private key encryption are too difficult to reverse or “brute force.” However, all it takes is some new insight or analysis, or maybe new, affordable technology (e.g., practical quantum computing, or massively parallel computing) to violate those assumptions.

If you look at the way our systems are constructed, too little thought is given to what happens to existing infrastructure when something breaks. Designs can include compensating and recovery code, but doing so requires some cost in space or time. However, all too often people are willing to avoid the investment by putting off the danger to “if and when that happens.” Thus, we instance such as the Y2K problems and the issues here with potentially rogue CAs.

(I’ll note as an aside, that when I designed the original version of Tripwire and what became the Signacert product, I specifically included simultaneous use of several different message digest functions in different families for this very reason. I knew it was a matter of time before one or two were broken. I still believe that it is beyond reason to find files that will match multiple, different algorithms simultaneously.)

Another issue is the whole question of who we trust, and for what. As noted in the USACM whitepaper, authentication is always relative to a third party. How much do we trust those third parties? How much trust have we invested in the companies and agencies issuing certificates? Are they properly verifying identities? How good is there internal security? How do we know, and how much is at risk from our trust in those entities?

Let me leave you with a final thought. How do we know that this problem has not already been quietly exploited? The basic concept has been in the open literature for years. The general nature of this attack on certificates has been known for well over a decade, if not two. Given the technical and infrastructure resources available to national agencies and organized criminals, and given the motivation to use this hack selectively and quietly, how can we know that it is not already being used?

[Added 12/31/2008]: A follow-up post to this one is available in the blog.


Computer Security Outlook

Recently, the McAfee Corporation released their latest Virtual Criminology Report.  Personnel from CERIAS helped provide some of the research for the report.
The report makes interesting reading, and you might want to download a copy.  You will have to register to get a copy, however (that’s McAfee, not CERIAS).

The editors concluded that there are 3 major trends in computer security and computer crime:

  1. An increasing level and sophistication of nation-state sponsored espionage and (some) sabotage.
  2. An increasing sophistication in criminal threats to individuals and businesses
  3. An increasing market for exploits and attack methods

Certainly, anyone following the news and listening to what we’ve been saying here will recognize these trends.  All are natural consequences of increased connectivity and increased presence of valued information and resources online, coupled with weak security and largely ineffectual law enforcement.  If value is present and there is little or no protection, and if there is also little risk of being caught and punished, then there is going to be a steady increase in system abuse.

I’ve posted links on my tumble log to a number of recent news articles on computer crime and espionage.  It’s clear that there is a lot of misuse occurring, and that we aren’t seeing it all.

[posted with ecto]

Gazing in the Crystal Ball

[tags]future technology, cyber security predictions, malware, bots, privacy, cyber crime[/tags]
Four times in the last month I have been contacted by people asking my predictions for future cyber security threats and protections.  One of those instances will be as I serve on a panel at the Information Security Decisions Conference in Chicago next week; we’ll be talking about the future of infosec. 

Another instance when I was contacted was by the people at Information Security magazine for their upcoming 10th anniversary issue.  I was interviewed back in 2002, and my comments were summarized in a “crystal ball” article.  Some of those predictions were more like trend predictions, but I think I did pretty well.  Most happened, and a couple may yet come to pass (I didn’t say they would all happen in 5 years!). I had a conversation with one of the reporters for the Nov 2007 issue, and provided some more observations looking forward.

After answering several of these requests, I thought it might be worthwhile to validate my views.  So, I wrote up a list of things I see happening in security as we go forward.  Then I polled (what I thought) was a small set of colleagues; thru an accident of mail aliases, a larger group of experts got my query.  (The mailer issue may be fodder for a future blog post.)  I got about 20 thoughtful replies from some real experts and deep thinkers in the field.

What was interesting is that while reading the replies, I found only a few minor differences from what I had already written!  Either that means I have a pretty good view of what’s coming, or else the people I asked are all suffering under the same delusions. 

Of course, none of us made predictions as are found in supermarket tabloids, along the lines of “Dick Cheney will hack into computers running unpatched Windows XP at the Vatican in February in an attempt to impress Britney Spears.”  Although we might generate some specific predictions like that, I don’t think our crystal balls have quite the necessary resolution.  Plus, I’m sure the Veep’s plans along those lines are classified, and we might end up in Gitmo for revealing them.  Nonetheless, I’d like to predict that I will win the Powerball Lottery, but will be delayed collecting the payout because Adriana Lima has become so infatuated with me, she has abducted me.  Yes, I’d like to predict that, but I think the Cheney prediction might be more likely….

But seriously, here are some of my predictions/observations of where we’re headed with cyber security.  (I’m not going to name the people who responded to my poll, because when I polled them I said nothing about attributing their views in public; I value my friends’ privacy as much or more than their insights!  However, my thanks again to those who responded.) 

If all of these seem obvious to you, then you are probably working in cyber security or have your own crystal ball.

Expect attack software to be the dominant threat in the coming few years.  As a trend, we will continue to see fewer overt viruses and worm programs as attacks, but continuing threats that hijack machines with bots, trojans, and browser subversion. Threats that self-modify to avoid detection, and threats that attack back against defenders will make the situation even more challenging.  It will eventually be too difficult to tell if a system is compromised and disinfect it—the standard protocol will be to reformat and reinstall upon any question.

Spam, pop-up ads, and further related advertising abuses will grow worse (as difficult as that is to believe), and will continue to mask more serious threats.  The ties between spam and malware will increase.  Organized crime will become more heavily involved in both because of the money to be made coupled with the low probability of prosecution.

Extortion based on threats to integrity, availability, or exposure of information will become more common as systems are invaded and controlled remotely.  Extortion of government entities may be threatened based on potential attacks against infrastructure controls.  These kinds of losses will infrequently be revealed to the public.

Theft of proprietary information will increase as a lucrative criminal activity.  Particularly targeted will be trade secret formulations and designs, customer lists, and supply chain details.  The insider threat will grow here, too.

Expect attacks against governmental systems, and especially law enforcement systems, as criminals seek to remove or damage information about themselves and their activities.

Fads will continue and will seem useful to early adopters, but as greater roll-out occurs, deficiencies will be found that will make them less effective—or possibly even worse than what they replace.  Examples include overconfident use of biometrics and over-reliance on virtualization to protect systems.  Mistaken reliance on encryption as a solution will also be a repeated theme.

We will continue to see huge expenditures on R&D to retrofit security onto fundamentally broken technologies rather than on re-engineering systems according to sound security principles.  Governments and many companies will continue to stress the search for “new” ideas without adequately applying older, proven techniques that might be somewhat inconvenient even though effective.

There will be continued development of protection technologies out of proportion to technologies that will enable us to identify and punish the criminals.  It will be a while before the majority of people catch on that passive defense alone is not enough and begin to appropriately capitalize investigation and law enforcement.  We will see more investment in scattered private actions well before we see governments stepping up.

White-listing and integrity management solutions will become widely used by informed security professionals as they become aware of how impossible it is to detect all bad software and behavior (blacklisting).  Meanwhile, because of increasing stealth and sophistication of attacks, many victims will not realize that their traditional IDS/anti-virus solutions based on blacklists have failed to protect them. 

White-listing will also obviate the competition among some vendors to buy vulnerabilities, and solve the difficulty of identifying zero-day attacks, because it is not designed to trigger on those items.  However, it may be slow to be adopted because so much has been invested in traditional blacklist technologies: firewalls, IDS/NIDS/IPS, antivirus, etc.

Greater emphasis will be placed on positive identity management, both online and in the physical world.  Coupled with access control, this will provide some solutions but further erode privacy.  Thus, it is uncertain how widely these technologies will be embraced.  TSA and too much of the general public will still believe that showing a picture ID somehow improves security, so the way ahead in authentication/identification is uncertain.

We will continue to see more people using sensitive systems, but not enough people trained in cyber protection.  This will continue some current trends such as people with questionable qualifications calling themselves “experts,” and more pressure for certifications and qualifications to demonstrate competence (and more promotion of questionable certifications to meet that need).

Many nations will face difficulties finding appropriately educated and vetted experts who are also capable of getting national-level clearances.  Industry may also find it difficult to find enough trained individuals without criminal records, which will lead to greater reliance on outsourcing.  It will also mean that we will continue to see instances where poorly-informed individuals mistakenly think that single technologies will solve all all their problems—with firewalls and encryption being two prime examples.

Personnel for after-the-fact investigations (both law enforcement and civil) will be in high demand and short supply.

Much greater emphasis needs to be placed on educating the end-user population about security and privacy, but this will not receive sufficient support or attention. 

The insider threat will become more pronounced because systems are mostly still being designed and deployed with perimeter defenses.

Crime, identity theft, and violations of privacy will increasingly become part of public consciousness.  This will likely result in reduction of trust in on-line services.  This may also negatively impact development of new services and products, but there will still be great adoption of new technologies despite their unknown risk models; VoIP is an example.

Some countries will become known as havens for computer criminals.  International pressure will increase on those countries to become “team players” in catching the criminals.  This will not work well in those countries where the government has financial ties to the criminals or has a political agenda in encouraging them.  Watch for the first international action (financial embargo?) on this issue within the next five years.

We will see greater connectivity, more embedded systems, and less obvious perimeters.  This will require a change in how we think about security (push it into the devices and away from network core, limit functionality), but the changes will be slow in coming.  Advertisers and vendors will resist these changes because some of their revenue models would be negatively impacted.

Compliance rules and laws will drive some significant upgrades and changes, but not all will be appropriate as the technology changes.  Some compliance requirements may actually expose organizations to attack.  Related to compliance, the enforcement of external rights (e.g., copyright using DRM) will lead to greater complexity in systems, more legal wrangling, and increased user dissatisfaction with some IT products.

More will be spent in the US on DRM enforcement and attempts to restrict access to online pictures of naked people than is likely to be spent on cybersecurity research.  More money will be spent by the US government ensuring that people don’t take toothpaste in carry-on luggage on airplanes than will be spent on investigating and prosecuting computer fraud and violation of spam laws.

Government officials will continue to turn to industry for “expert advice”—listening to the same people who have built multinational behemoths by marketing the unsafe products that got us into this mess already.  (It’s the same reason they consult the oil executives on how to solve global warming.)  Not surprisingly, the recommendations will all be for strongly worded statements and encouragement, but not real change in behavior.

We will see growing realization that massive data stores, mirroring, RAID, backups and more mean that data never really goes away.  This will be a boon to some law enforcement activities, a terrible burden for companies in civil lawsuits, and a continuing threat to individual privacy.  It will also present a growing challenge to reconcile different versions of the same data in some meaningful way.  Purposeful pollution of the data stores around the world will be conducted by some individuals to make the collected data so conflicted and ambiguous that it cannot be used.

Overall Bottom line:  things are going to get worse before they get better, and it may be a while before things get better.

[posted with ecto]

Spaf Gets Interviewed

[tags]interview,certification[/tags]I was recently interviewed by Gary McGraw for his Silver Bullet interview series.  He elicited my comments on a number of topics, including security testing, ethical hacking, and why security is difficult.If you like any of my blog postings, you might find the interview of some interest.  But if not, you might some of the other interviews of interest – mine was #18 in the series.


[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. grin]