Are We All Aware Yet?
So, here we are, in November already. We've finished up with National Cyber Security Awareness Month — feel safer? I was talking with someone who observed that he remembered "National Computer Security Day" (started back in the late 1990s) that then became "National Computer Security Week" for a few years. Well, the problems didn't go away when everyone started to call it "cyber," so we switched to a whole month but only of "awareness." This is also the "Cyber Leap Ahead Year." At the same level of progress, we'll soon have "The Decade of Living Cyber Securely." The Hundred Years' War comes to mind for some reason, but I don't think our economic system will last that long with losses mounting as they are. The Singularity may not be when computers become more powerful than the human mind, but will be the point at which all intellectual property, national security information, and financial data has been stolen and is no longer under the control of its rightful owners.
Overly gloomy? Perhaps. But consider that today is also the 21st anniversary of the Morris Internet Worm. Back then, it was a big deal because a few thousand computers were affected. Meanwhile, today's news has a story about the Conficker worm passing the 7 million host level, and growing. Back in 1988 there were about 100 known computer viruses. Today, most vendors have given up trying to measure malware as the numbers are in the millions. And now we are seeing instances of fraud based on fake anti-malware programs being marketed that actually infect the hosts on which they are installed! The sophistication and number of these things are increasing non-linearly as people continue to try to defend fundamentally unsecurable systems.
And as far as awareness goes, a few weeks ago I was talking with some grad students (not from Purdue). Someone mentioned the Worm incident; several of the students had never heard of it. I'm not suggesting that this should be required study, but it is indicative of something I think is happening: the overall awareness of security issues and history seems to be declining among the population studying computing. I did a quick poll, and many of the same students only vaguely recalled ever hearing about anything such as the Orange Book or Common Criteria, about covert channels, about reference monitors, or about a half dozen other things I mentioned. Apparently, anything older than about 5 years doesn't seem to register. I also asked them to name 5 operating systems (preferably ones they had used), and once they got to 4, most were stumped (Windows, Linux, MacOS and a couple said "Multics" because I had asked about it earlier; one young man smugly added "whatever it is running on my cellphone," which turned out to be a Windows variant). No wonder everyone insists on using the same OS, the same browser, and the same 3 programming languages — they have never been exposed to anything else!
About the same time, I was having a conversation with a senior cyber security engineer of a major security defense contractor (no, I won't say which one). The engineer was talking about a problem that had been posed in a recent RFP. I happened to mention that it sounded like something that might be best solved with a capability architecture. I got a blank look in return. Somewhat surprised, I said "You know, capabilities and rings — as in Multics and System/38." The reaction to that amazed me: "Those sound kinda familiar. Are those versions of SE Linux?"
Sigh. So much for awareness, even among the professionals who are supposed to be working in security. The problems are getting bigger faster than we have been addressing them, and too many of the next generation of computing professionals don't even know the basic fundamentals or history of information security. Unfortunately, the focus of government and industry seems to continue to be on trying to "fix" the existing platforms rather than solve the actual problems. How do we get "awareness" into that mix?
There are times when I look back over my professional career and compare it to trying to patch holes in a sinking ship while the passengers are cheerfully boring new holes in the bottom to drop in chum for the circling sharks. The biggest difference is that if I was on the ship, at least I might get a little more sun and fresh air.