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A Cynic’s Take on Cyber Czars and 60-day Reports

Today, and Before

On July 17, 2008, (then) Senator Barack Obama held a town hall meeting on national security at Purdue University. He and his panel covered issues of nuclear, biological and cyber security. (I blogged about the event here and here.) As part of his remarks at the event, Senator Obama stated:

Every American depends — directly or indirectly — on our system of information networks. They are increasingly the backbone of our economy and our infrastructure; our national security and our personal well-being. But it's no secret that terrorists could use our computer networks to deal us a crippling blow. We know that cyber-espionage and common crime is already on the rise. And yet while countries like China have been quick to recognize this change, for the last eight years we have been dragging our feet.

As President, I'll make cyber security the top priority that it should be in the 21st century. I'll declare our cyber-infrastructure a strategic asset, and appoint a National Cyber Advisor who will report directly to me. We'll coordinate efforts across the federal government, implement a truly national cyber-security policy, and tighten standards to secure information — from the networks that power the federal government, to the networks that you use in your personal lives.

That was a pretty exciting statement to hear!

On February 9, 2009, (now) President Obama appointed Melissa Hathaway as Acting Senior Director for Cyberspace and charged her with performing a comprehensive review of national cyberspace security in 60 days. I interacted with Ms. Hathaway and members of her team during those 60 days (as well as before and after). From my point of view, it was a top-notch team of professionals approaching the review with a great deal of existing expertise and open minds. I saw them make a sincere effort to reach out to every possible community for input.

If you're keeping count, the report was delivered on or about April 10. Then, mostly silence to those of us on the outside. Several rumors were circulated in blogs and news articles, and there was a presentation at the RSA conference that didn't really say much.

Until today: May 29th.

Shortly after 11am EDT, President Obama gave some prepared remarks and his office released the report. In keeping with his July 2008 statement, the President did declare that "our digital infrastructure -- the networks and computers we depend on every day -- will be treated as they should be: as a strategic national asset." However, he did not appoint someone as a National Cyber Advisor. Instead, he announced the position of a "Cybersecurity Coordinator" that will be at a lower level in the Executive Office of the White House. No appointment to that position was announced today, either. (I have heard rumor from several sources that a few high-profile candidates have turned down offers of the position already. Those are only rumors, however.)

The President outlined the general responsibilities and duties of this new position. It apparently will be within the National Security Staff, reporting to the NSC, but also reporting to OMB and the National Economic Council, and working with the Federal CIO, CTO and the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The new Coordinator will be charged with

  1. helping develop (yet another) strategy to secure cyberspace. This will include metrics and performance milestones;
  2. coordinating with state and local governments, and with the private sector, "to ensure an organized and unified response to future cyber incidents."
  3. to strengthen ties with the private sector, with an explicit mandate to not set security standards for industry.
  4. to continue to invest in cyber (although the examples he gave were not about research or security
  5. to begin a national campaign to increase awareness and cyber literacy.

The President also made it clear that privacy was important, and that monitoring of private networks would not occur.

Reading Between the Lines

There were a number of things that weren't stated that are also interesting, as well as understanding implications of what was stated.

First of all, the new position is rather like a glorified cheerleader: there is no authority for budget or policy, and the seniority is such that it may be difficult to get the attention of cabinet secretaries, agency heads and CEOs. The position reports to several entities, presumably with veto power (more on that below). Although the President said the appointee will have "regular access" to him, that is not the same as an advisor -- and this is a difference that can mean a lot in Washington circles. Although it is rumor that several high-profile people have already turned down the position, I am not surprised given this circumstance. (And this may be why it has been two months since the report was delivered before this event — they've been trying to find someone to take the job.)

The last time someone was in a role like this with no real authority -- was in 2001 when Howard Schmidt was special adviser for cyberspace security to President G.W.Bush. Howard didn't stay very long, probably because he wasn't able to accomplish anything meaningful beyond coordinating (another) National Plan to Secure Cyberspace. It was a waste of his time and talents. Of course, this President knows the difference between "phishing" and "fission" and has actually used email, but still...

Second, the position reports to the National Economic Council and OMB. If we look back at our problems in cyber security (and I have blogged about them extensively over the last few years, and spoken about them for two decades), many of them are traceable to false economies: management deciding that short-term cost savings were more important than protecting against long-term risk. Given the current stress in the economy I don't expect any meaningful actions to be put forth that cost anything; we will still have the mindset that "cheapest must be best."

Third, there was no mention of new resources. In particular, no new resources for educational initiatives or research. We can pump billions of dollars into the bank accounts of greedy financiers on Wall Street, but no significant money is available for cyber security and defense. No surprise, really, but it is important to note the "follow the money" line -- the NEC has veto power over this position, and no money is available for new initiatives outside their experience.

Fourth, there was absolutely no mention made of bolstering our law enforcement community efforts. We already have laws in place and mechanisms that could be deployed if we simply had the resources and will to deploy them. No mention was made at all about anything active such as this -- all the focus was on defensive measures. Similarly, there was no mention of national-level responses to some of the havens of cyber criminals, nor of the pending changes in the Department of Defense that are being planned.

Fifth, the President stated "Our pursuit of cybersecurity will not -- I repeat, will not include -- monitoring private sector networks or Internet traffic." I suspect that was more than intended to reassure the privacy advocates -- I believe it was "code" for "We will not put the NSA in charge of domestic cyber security." Maybe I'm trying to read too much into it, but this has been a touchy issue in many different communities over the last few months.

There are certainly other things that might be noted about the report, but we should also note some positive aspects: the declaration that cyber is indeed a strategic national asset, that the problems are large and growing, that the existing structures don't work, that privacy is important, and that education is crucial to making the most of cyber going forward.

Of course, Congress ("pro is to con as Progress is to Congress") is an important player in all this, and can either help define a better or solution or stand in the way of what needs to be done. Thus, naming a Cyberspace Coordinator is hardly the last word on what might happen.

But with the perspective I have, I find it difficult to get too excited about the overall announcement. We shall see what actually happens.

The Report

I've read the report through twice, and read some news articles commenting on it. These comments are "off the top" and not necessarily how I'll view all this in a week or two. But what's the role of blogging if I need to think about it for a month, first? cheese

It is important to note that the President's remarks were not the same as the report, although its issuance was certainly endorsed by the White House. The reason I note the difference is that the report identifies many problems that the President's statement does not address (in any way), and includes many "should"s that cannot be addressed by a "coordinator" who has no budget or policy authority.

What is both interesting and sad is how much the new report resembles the largely-inconsequential National Plan to Secure Cyberspace issued under the Bush Administration (be sure to see the article at the link). That isn't a slam on this report -- as I wrote earlier, I think it is a good effort by a talented and dedicated team. What I mean to imply is that the earlier National Plan had some strong points too, but nothing came of it because of cost and prioritization and lack of authority.

There are a number of excellent points made in this report: the international aspects, the possibility of increased liability for poor security products and pratices, the need for involvement of the private sector and local governments, the need for more education, the problems of privacy with security, and more.

I was struck by a few things missing from the report.

First, there was no mention of the need for more long-term, less applied research and resources to support it. This is a critical issue, as I have described here before and has been documented time and again. To its credit, the report does mention a need for better technology transfer, although this is hardly the first time that has been observed; the 2005 PITAC report "Cyber Security: A Crisis of Prioritization" included all of this (and also had minimal impact).

The report had almost nothing to say about increasing resources and support for law enforcement and prosecution. This continues to puzzle me, as we have laws in place and systems that could make an impact if we only made it a priority.

There is no discussion about why some previous attempts and structures -- notably DHS -- have failed to make any meaningful progress, and sometimes have actually hindered better cyber security. Maybe that would be expecting too much in this report (trying not to point fingers), but one can't help but wonder. Perhaps it is simply enough to note that no recommendations are made to locate any of the cyber responsibilities in DHS.

There is some discussion of harmonizing regulations, but nothing really about reviewing the crazy-quilt laws we have covering security, privacy and response. There is one sentence in the report that suggests that seeking new legislation could make things worse, and that is true but odd to see.

As an aside, I bet the discussion about thinking about liability changes for poor security practices and products -- a very reasonable suggestion -- caused a few of the economic advisors to achieve low Earth orbit. That may have been enough to set off the chain of events leading to reporting to the NEC, actually. However, it is a legitimate issue to raise, and one that works in other markets. Some of us have been suggesting for decades that it be considered, yet everyone in business wants to be held blameless for their bad decisions. Look at what has played out with the financial meltdown and TARP and you'll see the same: The businessmen and economists can destroy the country, but shouldn't be held at fault. mad

There is discussion of the supply-chain issue but the proposed solution is basically to ensure US leadership in production -- a laudable goal, but not achievable given the current global economy. We're going to need to change some of our purchasing and vetting habits to really achieve more trustworthy systems — but that won't go over with the economists, either.

There is no good discussion about defining roles among law enforcement, the military, the intelligence community, and private industry in responding to the problems. Yes, that is a snake pit and will take more than this report to describe, but the depth of the challenges could have been conveyed.

As David Wagner noted in email to an USACM committee, there is no prioritization given to help a reader understand which items are critical, which items are important, and which are merely desirable. We do not have the resources to tackle all the problems first, and there is no guidance here on how to proceed.


I didn't intend for this to be a long, critical post about the report and the announcement. I think that this topic is receiving Presidential attention is great. The report is really a good summary of the state of cybersecurity and needs, produced by some talented and dedicated Federal employees. However, the cynic in me fears that it will go the way of all the other fine reports -- many of which I contributed to -- including the PITAC report and the various CSTB reports; that is, it will make a small splash and then fade into the background as other issues come to the fore.

Basically, I think the President had the right intentions when all this started, but the realpolitik of the White House and current events have watered them down, resulting in action that basically endorses only a slight change from the status quo.

I could be wrong. I hope I'm wrong. But experience has shown that it is almost impossible to be too cynical in this area. In a year or so we can look back at this and we'll all know. But what we heard today certainly isn't what Candidate Obama promised last July.

(And as I noted in a previous post, Demotivators seem to capture so much of this space. Here's one that almost fits.)

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.

Rethinking computing insanity, practice and research

[A portion of this essay appeared in the October 2008 issue of Information Security magazine. My thanks to Dave Farber for a conversation that spurred me to post this expanded version.]

[Small typos corrected in April 2010.]

I’d like to repeat (portions of) a theme I have been speaking about for over a decade. I’ll start by taking a long view of computing.

Fifty years ago, IBM introduced the first all-transistor computer (the 7000 series). Transistors were approximately $60 apiece (in current dollars). Secondary storage was about 10 cents per byte (also in current dollars) and had a density of approximately 2000 bits per cubic inch. According to Wikipedia, a working IBM 7090 system with a full 32K of memory (the capacity of the machine) cost about $3,000,000 to purchase—over $21,000,000 in current dollars. Software, peripherals, and maintenance all cost more. Rental of a system (maintenance included) could be well over $500,000 per month (in 1958 dollars). Other vendors soon brought their own transistorized systems to market, at similar costs.

These early computing systems came without an operating system. However, the costs of having such a system sit idle between jobs (and during I/O) led the field to develop operating systems that supported sharing of hardware to maximize utilization. It also led to the development of user accounts for cost accounting. And all of these soon led to development of security features to ensure that the sharing didn’t go too far, and that accounting was not disabled or corrupted. As the hardware evolved and became more capable, the software also evolved and took on new features.

Costs and capabilities of computing hardware have changed by a factor of tens of millions in five decades. Currently, transistors cost less than 1/7800 of a cent apiece in modern CPU chips (Intel Itanium). Assuming I didn’t drop a decimal place, that is a drop in price by 7 orders of magnitude.  Ed Lazowska made a presentation a few years ago where he indicated that the number of grains of rice harvested worldwide in 2004 was ten quintillion—10 raised to the 18th power. But in 2004, there were also ten quintillion transistors manufactured, and that number has increased faster than the rice harvest ever since. We have more transistors being produced and fielded each year than all the grains of rice harvested in all the countries of the world. Isn’t that amazing?

Storage also changed drastically. We have gone from core memory to semiconductor memory. And in secondary storage we have gone from drum memory to disks to SSDs. If we look at consumer disk storage, it is now common to get storage density of better than 500Gb per cubic inch at a cost of less than $.20 per Gb (including enclosure and controller)—a price drop of nearly 8 orders of magnitude. Of course, weight, size, speed, noise, heat, power, and other factors have all also undergone major changes. To think of it another way, that same presentation by Professor Lazowska, noted that the computerized greeting cards you can buy at the store to record and play back a message to music have more computing power and memory in them than some of those multi-million $ computers of the 1950s, all for under $10.

Yet, despite these incredible transformations, the operating systems, databases, languages, and more that we use are still basically the designs we came up with in the 1960s to make the best use of limited, expensive, shared equipment. More to the theme of this blog, overall information security is almost certainly worse now than it was in the 1960s. We’re still suffering from problems known for decades, and systems are still being built with intrinsic weaknesses, yet now we have more to lose with more valuable information coming online every week.

Why have we failed to make appreciable progress with the software? In part, it is because we’ve been busy trying to advance on every front. Partially, it is because it is simpler to replace the underlying hardware with something faster, thus getting a visible performance gain. This helps mask the ongoing lack of quality and progression to really new ideas. As well, the speed with which the field of computing (development and application) moves is incredible, and few have the time or inclination to step back and re-examine first principles. This includes old habits such as the sense of importance in making code “small” even to the point of leaving out internal consistency checks and error handling. (Y2K was not a one-time fluke—it’s an instance of an institutional bad habit.)

Another such habit is that of trying to build every system to have the capability to perform every task. There is a general lack of awareness that security needs are different for different applications and environments; instead, people seek uniformity of OS, hardware architecture, programming languages and beyond, all with maximal flexibility and capacity. Ostensibly, this uniformity is to reduce purchase, training, and maintenance costs, but fails to take into account risks and operational needs. Such attitudes are clearly nonsensical when applied to almost any other area of technology, so it is perplexing they are still rampant in IT.   

For instance, imagine buying a single model of commercial speedboat and assuming it will be adequate for bass fishing, auto ferries, arctic icebreakers, Coast Guard rescues, oil tankers, and deep water naval interdiction—so long as we add on a few aftermarket items and enable a few options. Fundamentally, we understand that this is untenable and that we need to architect a vessel from the keel upwards to tailor it for specific needs, and to harden it against specific dangers. Why cannot we see the same is true for computing? Why do we not understand that the commercial platform used at home to store Aunt Bee’s pie recipes is NOT equally suitable for weapons control, health care records management, real-time utility management, storage of financial transactions, and more? Trying to support everything in one system results in huge, unwieldy software on incredibly complex hardware chips, all requiring dozens of external packages to attempt to shore up the inherent problems introduced by the complexity. Meanwhile, we require more complex hardware to support all the software, and this drives complexity, cost and power issues.

The situation is unlikely to improve until we, as a society, start valuing good security and quality over the lifetime of our IT products. We need to design systems to enforce behavior within each specific configuration, not continually tinker with general systems to stop each new threat. Firewalls, IDS, antivirus, DLP and even virtual machine “must-have” products are used because the underlying systems aren’t trustworthy—as we keep discovering with increasing pain. A better approach would be to determine exactly what we want supported in each environment, build systems to those more minimal specifications only, and then ensure they are not used for anything beyond those limitations. By having a defined, crafted set of applications we want to run, it will be easier to deny execution to anything we don’t want; To use some current terminology, that’s “whitelisting” as opposed to “blacklisting.” This approach to design is also craftsmanship—using the right tools for each task at hand, as opposed to treating all problems the same because all we have is a single tool, no matter how good that tool may be. After all, you may have the finest quality multitool money can buy, with dozens of blades and screwdrivers and pliers. But you would never dream of building a house (or a government agency) using that multitool. Sure, it does a lot of things passably, but it is far from ideal for expertly doing most complex tasks.

Managers will make the argument that using a single, standard component means it can be produced, acquired and operated more cheaply than if there are many different versions. That is often correct insofar as direct costs are concerned. However, it fails to include secondary costs such as reducing the costs of total failure and exposure, and reducing the cost of “bridge” and “add-on” components to make items suitable. Smaller and more directed systems need to be patched and upgraded far less often than large, all-inclusive systems because they have less to go wrong and don’t change as often. There is also a defensive benefit to the resulting diversity: attackers need to work harder to penetrate a given system because they don’t know what is running. Taken to an extreme, having a single solution also reduces or eliminates real innovation as there is no incentive for radical new approaches; with a single platform, the only viable approach is to make small, incremental changes built to the common format. This introduces a hidden burden on progress that is well understood in historical terms—radical new improvements seldom result from staying with the masses in the mainstream.

Therein lies the challenge, for researchers and policy-makers. The current cyber security landscape is a major battlefield. We are under constant attack from criminals, vandals, and professional agents of governments. There is such an urgent, large-scale need to simply bring current systems up to some bare minimum that it could soak up way more resources than we have to throw at the problems. The result is that there is a huge sense of urgency to find ways to “fix” the current infrastructure. Not only is this where the bulk of the resources is going, but this flow of resources and attention also fixes the focus of our research establishment on these issues, But when this happens, there is great pressure to direct research towards the current environment, and towards projects with tangible results. Program managers are encouraged to go this way because they want to show they are good stewards of the public trust by helping solve major problems. CIOs and CTOs are less willing to try outlandish ideas, and cringe at even the notion of replacing their current infrastructure, broken as it may be. So, researchers go where the money is—tried and true, incremental, “safe” research.

We have crippled our research community as a result. There are too few resources devoted to far-ranging ideas that may not have immediate results. Even if the program managers encourage vision, review panels are quick to quash it. The recent history of DARPA is one that has shifted towards immediate results from industry and away from vision, at least in computing. NSF, DOE, NIST and other agencies have also shortened their horizons, despite claims to the contrary. Recommendations for action (including the recent CSIS Commission report to the President) continue this by posing the problem as how to secure the current infrastructure rather than asking how we can build and maintain a trustable infrastructure to replace what is currently there.

Some of us see how knowledge of the past combined with future research can help us have more secure systems. The challenge continues to be convincing enough people that “cheap” is not the same as “best,” and that we can afford to do better. Let’s see some real innovation in building and deploying new systems, languages, and even networks. After all, we no longer need to fit in 32K of memory on a $21 million computer. Let’s stop optimizing the wrong things, and start focusing on discovering and building the right solutions to problems rather than continuing to try to answer the same tired (and wrong) questions. We need a major sustained effort in research into new operating systems and architectures, new software engineering methods, new programming languages and systems, and more, some with a (nearly) clean-slate starting point. Small failures should be encouraged, because they indicate people are trying risky ideas. Then we need a sustained effort to transition good ideas into practice.

I’ll conclude with s quote that many people attribute to Albert Einstein, but I have seen multiple citations to its use by John Dryden in the 1600s in his play “The Spanish Friar”:

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

What we have been doing in cyber security has been insane. It is past time to do something different.

[Added 12/17: I was reminded that I made a post last year that touches on some of the same themes; it is here.]

Presidential Politics

If you are in the United States, it has been nigh-on impossible to watch TV, read a newspaper, follow a blog, or (in some states) get your paper mail without something about the upcoming election being present. Some of this has been educational, but a huge amount of it has been negative, vague, and often misleading. That’s U.S. politics, unfortunately—the majority of voters don’t really bother to educate themselves about the issues and the media does an uneven job of reporting the truth. For many voters, it comes down to only one or two issues they care passionately about, and they vote for a candidate (or against one) on those simple issues. For instance, there are many voters who will base their votes solely on a candidate’s perceived position on gun control, access to legal abortions, tax policy, or other single issues without thinking about all the position issues. (And, as I note below, most of these single issues aren’t really under the control of the President no matter who is elected.)

Of course, the US political system tends to reinforce this binary choice procedure, as we have long had only two really major parties. Parliamentary systems seem to encourage more parties, although even then there appears to be only two major ones, often oriented around the same approximate social/political poles: a conservative party, and a liberal (labor) party.

So, in the U.S. we have candidates from both major parties (and many minor ones) campaigning—explaining their positions, offering their plans for when they are in office, and trying to instill voter confidence and trust. (And too often, offering innuendo, misquotes and outright untruths about their opponents.)

What none of them say, and the media doesn’t either, is that very few of the promises can really be certain of being kept. And in large part, that is also a nature of government.

The President has a limited set of powers under the Constitution. He (or she) is responsible for the execution of the laws of the United States. The President is the Commander-in-Chief of all the armed forces and is responsible for commanding them in defense of the country and upholding the law (including treaties). The President is the chief executive agent of all the various Cabinet agencies, and of a number of offices and commissions. The President appoints a large number of officials (including judges and ambassadors), but doesn’t have the power to remove many of them.

Most importantly, the President does not make new laws. Laws are passed by Congress, usually with the assent of the President, although a 2/3 majority of both houses of Congress may pass laws to which the President objects. The President is then responsible for ensuring that those laws are carried out, with recourse to the Courts if there are questions. If the President fails to enforce the laws, Congress may take some punitive actions, or even impeach the President…if they have the political will.

So, back to the candidates. If you listen to their speeches, they offer to change tax law, spend more on energy issues, change health care, and a number of other important domestic issues. What they don’t point out, however, is that they will have no authority as President to do most of those things! Instead, Congress will need to pass authorizing legislation that is signed by the President. The President can certainly propose that Congress enact those changes, but Congress needs to craft and pass legislation that enables the President to act, and that allocate necessary funds, and that also create/remove administrative structures that may be involved. This legislation can include whatever other items that Congress adds in to the bill, including items that may be completely unrelated to the main topic. The President then must decide whether to sign the bill and act to implement its provisions.

So, the most a new President can do is to propose legislation to embody his/her campaign promises, and to work for its passage. What usually happens is that the size of the win in the election serves as a political measure of how much the population is aligned with the new President’s positions, and this can help get a particular agenda passed…or not. Of critical importance is also the issue of whether one or both houses of Congress are controlled by the same party as the new President, and by what margin.

Thus, there should probably be more attention paid to the candidates running for Congress and their particular positions on important issues. In many venues, however, the majority of the attention is focused on the Presidential contest. Some other states are also dealing with contentious state initiatives, tight governor races, and other local issues that help further obscure the Congressional races.

Now, how does this apply to cybersecurity, the ostensible topic of this blog? Or education? Or privacy? Or other topics we focus on here?

Well, as I will address in my next posting, the two main Presidential candidates have made some comments on cyber security, but I have not been able to find any coverage of any current candidate for Congress who has mentioned it. It is basically invisible. So is privacy. Education has gotten a little mention, but not much. And given the more overt, pressing issues of the economy, the deficit, health care, energy dependence, and war in the Middle East, it seems unlikely that any Congressional candidate has bothered to think much about these cyber issues, or that they have received much further thought from the Presidential candidates. (Too bad cyber security can’t be part of the mud slinging—it might raise its profile!)

Of course, with the economy in such sad shape, and some of the other severe problems being faced by the U.S., one might ask whether cyber should be a priority for the new President. I would answer yes, because the problems are already here and severe (although not as obvious as some of the other problems), and it will take years of major effort simply to keep even with the current sad status. The problems in cyber cannot be fixed in a crash effort devoted at any future time, and until they are addressed they will be a drain on the economy (in 2006, the FBI estimated the loss to computer crime in the US to be $67 billion—almost 10% of the recent economic bailout), and a threat to national security. Thus, deferring action on these issues will only make the situation worse; we need to initiate a sustained, significant program to make some important changes.

There are some things that the new President can do, especially as they relate to the military, law enforcement, and some other agencies in the Executive Branch. This is potentially cause for some glimmer of hope. I intend to blog some on that too, with a list of things that should be considered in the new administration.


Barack Obama, National Security and Me, Take II

Over the last month or so, many people who read my first post on Senator Obama’s “security summit” at Purdue have asked me about followup, I’ve been asked “Did you ever hear back from the Senator?”, “Has the McCain campaign contacted you?”, and “What do you think about the candidates?” I’ve also been asked by a couple of my colleagues (really!) “Why would they bother to contact you?”

So, let me respond to these, with the last one first.

Why would someone talk with you about policy?

So, I haven’t been elected or served in a cabinet-level position in DC. I haven’t won a Nobel prize (there isn’t one in IT), I’m not in the National Academies (and unlikely to be—few non-crypto security people are), and I don’t have a faculty appointment in a policy program (Purdue doesn’t have one). I also don’t write a lot of policy papers—or any other papers, anymore: I have a persistent RSI problem that has limited my written output for years. However, those aren’t the only indicators that someone has something of value to say.

As I’ve noted in an earlier post, I’ve had some involvement in cyber security policy issues at the Federal level. There’s more than my involvement with the origins of the SfS and Cyber Trust, certainly. I’ve been in an advising role (technology and policy) for nearly 20 years with a wide range of agencies, including the FBI, Air Force, GAO, NSA, NSF, DOE, OSTP, ODNI and more. I’ve served on the PITAC. I’ve testified before Congressional committees a half-dozen times, and met with staff (officially and unofficially) of the Senate and House many times more than that. Most people seem to think I have some good insight into Federal policy in cyber, but additionally, in more general issues of science and technology, and in defense and intelligence.

From another angle, I’ve also been deeply involved in policy. I served on the CRA Board of Directors for 9 years, and have been involved with its government affairs committee for a decade. I’ve been chair or co-chair of the ACM’s US Public Policy committee for a dozen years. From these vantage points I have gained additional insights into technology policy and challenges in a broad array of issues related to cyber, education, and technology.

And I continue to read a lot about these topics and more, including material in a number of the other sciences. And I’ve been involved in the practice and study of cyber security for over 30 years.

I can, without stretching things, say that I probably know more about policy in these areas than about 99.995% of the US population, with some people claiming that I’m in the top 10 or so with respect to broad issues of cyber security policy. That may be why I keep being asked to serve in advisory positions. A lot of people tend to ask me things, and seem to value the advice.

One would hope that at least some of the candidates would be interested in such advice, even if not all of my colleagues (or my family grin are interested in what I have to say.

Have any of the other candidates contacted you?

Simply put—no. I have gotten a lot of mailings from the Republican (and Democratic) campaigns asking me to donate money, but that’s it.

I’m registered as an independent, so that may or may not have played a role. For instance, I can’t volunteer to serve as a poll worker in Indiana because I’m not registered in one of the two main parties! I don’t show up in most of the databases (and that may be a blessing of sorts).

To digress a moment…. I don’t believe either party has a lock on the best ideas—or the worst. I’m not one of those people who votes a straight-ticket no matter what happens. I have friends who would vote for anyone so long as the candidate got the endorsement of “their” party. It reminds me of the drunken football fans with their shirts off in -20F weather cheering insanely for “their” team and willing to fight with a stranger who is wearing the wrong color. Sad. Having read the Constitution and taken the oath to defend it, I don’t recall any mention of political parties or red vs. blue….

That said, I would be happy to talk with any serious candidate (or elected official) about the issues around cyber, security, education, and the IT industry. They are important, and impact the future of our country…and of much of the world.

So, has anyone with the Obama campaign contacted you since his appearance at Purdue?

Well, the answer to this is “yes and no.”

I was told, twice, by a campaign worker that “Someone will call you—we definitely want more advice.” I never got that phone call. No message or explanation why. Nothing.

A few weeks after the second call I did get a strange email message. It was from someone associated with the campaign, welcoming me to some mailing list (that I had not asked to join) and including several Microsoft Word format documents. As my correspondents know, I view sending email with Word documents to be a bad thing. I also view being added to mailing lists without my permission to be a hostile act. I responded to the maintainer of the list and his reply was (paraphrased) “I don’t know why you were added. Someone must have had a reason. I’ll check and get back to you.” Well, I have received no more email from the list, and I never got any followup from that person.

So, in summary, I never got any follow-up from the campaign. I don’t think it is an issue with the Senator (who wouldn’t have been the one to contact me anyhow) but a decision by his staff.

So, depending your level of cynicism, the mentions of my name, of CERIAS, and of follow-up was either (a) a blown opportunity caused by an oversight, or (b) a cynical political ploy to curry local favor.

(My daughter suggested that they are waiting until after the election to appoint me to a lofty position in government. Uh, yeah. That probably explains why I haven’t gotten that MacArthur “genius grant” yet and why Adriana Lima hasn’t called asking me to run away with her—the timing just isn’t right yet. grin

What are your opinions on the Presidential candidates?

I’m not allowed to be partisan in official Purdue outlets. So, in some further posts here over the next week or two I will provide some analysis of both major candidates (NB. Yes, I know there are over 300 candidates for President on the ballots across the country. However, I don’t think there is much chance of Baldwin, Barr, McKinney, Nader, Paul or the rest getting into office. So, I’ll limit my comments to the two main candidates.

If you really want to know who I’m probably voting for, you can see my Facebook page or send me email.

[Update 10/16: After this was published I sent a link to this entry to several people associated with the Obama campaign. Only one responded, and it was clear from his email that there had been a mixup in getting back to me—but no interest in rectifying it.]