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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.)

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.

E-voting rears its head. Again.

Over the last few years, I have been involved in issues related to the use of computerization in voting. This has come about because of my concerns about computer security, privacy and reliability, and from my role as chair of the ACM U.S. Public Policy Committee (USACM). USACM has taken a strong position as regards use of computers as voting stations and voting over the internet.

Two recent items address the issue of voting over the Internet.

The first is a study released by NIST about the threats posed by internet voting. This is a well-written document describing problems that would be encountered with any online voting system. Their conclusion is that, for public elections, distribution of blank ballots (on paper) is the only reasonable improvement that we can make with current technology.

The second is a note from my colleague, Yvo Desmedt, one of the senior leaders in information security He has asked that I circulate this to a wider audience:

  IACR (the International Association for Cryptologic Research) has changed its bylaws to allow e-voting over the internet to elect its board members and other purposes. IACR will likely move towards internet e-voting. The IACR Board of Directors subcommittee on internet e-voting has published a list of requirements for such a system at: This is evidently a first step and the question remains whether the system the International Association for Cryptologic Research will choose will be easy to hack or not. So, security experts should follow this development.

The problems that need to be addressed by any voting technology are mostly obvious: impersonation of the voter, impersonation of the voting system, disclosure of the ballot, multiple voting, loss of votes, denial of access, and a number of other issues. The problems are complicated by the requirements of a fair voting system, one of which is that of vote deniability—that the voter is able to deny (or claim) that her/his vote was cast a particular way. This is important to prevent vote buying, or more importantly, retribution against voters who do not cast ballots in a particular way. It isn’t difficult to find stories where voters have been beaten or killed because of how they voted (or were presumed to have intended to vote). Thus, the tried-and-true concept of providing a receipt (ala ATM machines) is not a workable solution.

My intent in making this post isn’t to discuss all the issues behind e-voting—that is well beyond the scope of a single posting, and is covered well many other places. My main goal is to give some wider circulation to Yvo’s statement. However, in light of the recent problem with certificate issuance, it is also worth noting that schemes requiring encryption to secure voting may have hidden vulnerabilities that could lead to compromise and/or failures in the future.   

In the end, it comes down to a tradeoff of risk/reward (as do all security choices): can we accurately quantify the risks with a particular approach, and are we willing to assume them? Do we have appropriate mechanisms to eliminate, mitigate or shift the risks? Are we willing to accept the risks associated with adopting a particular form of e-voting in return for the potential benefit of better access for remote voters? Or are accurate (fair) results all the time more important than complete results?

Note that one objection often raised to USACM as we argue these points is “There is no evidence there has ever been a failure or tampering with a vote.” In addition to being incorrect (there are numerous cases of computer-based voting failures), this misses two key issues:

  • How do you tell if there is tampering if there are no safeguards that definitively disclose such tampering? That you have not detected something does not mean it has not occurred.
  • The past does not predict the future in such a case. That no failure (accidental or otherwise) has occurred does not mean it will not occur in the future. Worse, a string of occurrences without a failure may help cloud a future discovered discrepancy!

In the case of IACR, it is obvious why this group of cryptography professionals would wish to adopt techniques that show confidence in cryptography. However, the example they set could be very damaging for other groups—and populations—if their confidence is misplaced. Given the long history of spectacular failures in cryptography—often going unannounced while being exploited—it is somewhat surprising that the IACR is not more explicit in their statement about the risks of technological failures.


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.


Take 5 Minutes to Help Privacy Research!

This is from our colleagues at NCSU, and is time-critical. Please take 5 minutes to fill out this (simple) survey. It will help an NSF-funded privacy project.. And “Thank you” from CERIAS, too!


  ThePrivacyPlace.Org Privacy Survey is Underway!


Researchers at ThePrivacyPlace.Org are conducting an online survey about privacy policies and user values. The survey is supported by an NSF ITR grant (National Science Foundation Information Technology Research) and was first offered in 2002. We are offering the survey again in 2008 to reveal how user values have changed over the intervening years. The survey results will help organizations ensure their website privacy practices are aligned with current consumer values.


The URL is:


We need to attract several thousand respondents, and would be most appreciative if you would consider helping us get the word out about the survey, which takes about 5 to 10 minutes to complete. The results will be made available via our project website (


Prizes include
  $100 gift certificates sponsored by Intel Co.
  IBM gifts


On behalf of the research staff at ThePrivacyPlace.Org, thank you!


Privacy Survey

I am an advisor to ThePrivacyPlace.  They do great work on privacy issues, and this annual survey is valuable—but only with a lot of responses.  So, please respond and share the link with others.

The following is their survey announcement.

ThePrivacyPlace.Org Privacy Survey is Underway!

Researchers at ThePrivacyPlace.Org are conducting an online survey about privacy policies and user values. The survey is supported by an NSF ITR grant (National Science Foundation Information Technology Research) and was first offered in 2002. We are offering the survey again in 2008 to reveal how user values have changed over the intervening years. The survey results will help organizations ensure their website privacy practices are aligned with current consumer values.
The URL is:

We need to attract several thousand respondents, and would be most appreciative if you would consider helping us get the word out about the survey, which takes about 5 to 10 minutes to complete. The results will be made available via our project website (

Prizes include
$100 gift certificates sponsored by Intel Co.
IBM gifts

On behalf of the research staff at ThePrivacyPlace.Org, thank you!


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]

8 Security Action Items to Beat “Learned Helplessness”

So, you watch for advisories, deploy countermeasures (e.g., change firewall and IDS rules) or shut down vulnerable services, patch applications, restore services.  You detect compromises, limit damages, assess the damage, repair, recover, and attempt to prevent them again.  Tomorrow you start again, and again, and again.  Is it worth it?  What difference does it make?  Who cares anymore? 

If you’re sick of it, you may just be getting fatigued.

If you don’t bother defending anymore because you think there’s no point to this endless threadmill, you may be suffering from learned helplessness.  Some people even consider that if you only passively wait for patches to be delivered and applied by software update mechanisms, you’re already in the “learned helplessness category”.  On the other hand, tracking every vulnerability in the software you use by reading BugTraq, Full Disclosure, etc…, the moment that they are announced, and running proof of concept code on your systems to test them isn’t for everyone;  there are diminishing returns, and one has to balance risk vs energy expenditure, especially when that energy could produce better returns.  Of course I believe that using Cassandra is an OK middle ground for many, but I’m biased.

The picture may certainly look bleak, with talk of “perpetual zero-days”.  However, there are things you can do (of course, as in all lists not every item applies to everyone):

  • Don’t be a victim;  don’t surrender to helplessness.  If you have limited energy to spend on security (and who doesn’t have limits?), budget a little bit of time on a systematic and regular basis to stay informed and make progress on tasks you identify as important;  consider the ones listed below.
  • Don’t be a target.  Like or hate Windows, running it on a desktop and connecting to the internet is like having big red circles on your forehead and back.  Alternatives I feel comfortable with for a laptop or desktop system are Ubuntu Linux and MacOS X (for now;  MacOS X may become a greater target in time).  If you’re stuck with Windows, consider upgrading to Vista if you haven’t already;  the security effort poured into Vista should pay off in the long run.  For servers, there is much more choice, and Windows isn’t such a dominant target. 
  • Reduce your exposure (attack surface) by:
    • Browsing the web behind a NAT appliance when at home, in a small business, or whenever there’s no other firewall device to protect you.  Don’t rely only on a software firewall;  it can become disabled or get misconfigured by malware or bad software, or be too permissive by default (if you can’t or don’t know how to configure it).
    • Using the NoScript extension for Firefox (if you’re not using Firefox, consider switching, if only for that reason).  JavaScript is a vector of choice for desktop computer attacks (which is why I find the HoneyClient project so interesting, but I digress).  JavaScript can be used to violate your privacy* or take control of your browser away from you, and give it to website authors, advertisers on those sites, or to the people who compromised those sites, and you can bet it’s not always done for your benefit (even though JavaScript enables better things as well).  NoScript gives you a little control over browser plugins, and which sources are allowed to run scripts in your browser, and attempts to prevent XSS exploits.
    • Turning off unneeded features and services (OK, this is old advice, but it’s still good).
  • Use the CIS benchmarks, and if evaluation tools are available for your platform, run them.  These tools give you a score, and even as silly as some people may think this score is (reducing the number of holes in a ship from 100 to 10 may still sink the ship!), it gives you positive feedback as you improve the security stance of your computers.  It’s encouraging, and may lift the feeling that you are sinking into helplessness.  If you are a Purdue employee, you have access to CIS Scoring Tools with specialized features (see this news release).  Ask if your organization also has access and if not consider asking for it (note that this is not necessary to use the benchmarks).

  • Use the NIST security checklists (hardening guides and templates).  The NIST’s information technology laboratory site has many other interesting security papers to read as well.

  • Consider using Thunderbird and the Enigmail plugin for GPG, which make handling signed or encrypted email almost painless.  Do turn on SSL or TLS-only options to connect to your server (both SMTP and either IMAP or POP) if it supports it.  If not, request these features from your provider.  Remember, learned helplessness is not making any requests or any attempts because you believe it’s not ever going to change anything.  If you can login to the server, you also have the option of SSH tunneling, but it’s more hassle.

  • Watch CERIAS security seminars on subjects that interest you.

  • If you’re a software developer or someone who needs to test software, consider using the ReAssure system as a test facility with configurable network environments and collections of VMware images (disclosure: ReAssure is my baby, with lots of help from other CERIAS people like Ed Cates).

Good luck!  Feel free to add more ideas as comments.

*A small rant about privacy, which tends to be another area of learned helplessness: Why do they need to know?  I tend to consider all information that people gather about me, that they don’t need to know for tasks I want them to do for me, a (perhaps very minor) violation of my privacy, even if it has no measurable effect on my life that I know about (that’s part of the problem—how do I know what effect it has on me?).  I like the “on a need to know basis” principle, because you don’t know which selected (and possibly out of context) or outdated information is going to be used against you later.  It’s one of the lessons of life that knowledge about you isn’t always used in legal ways, and even if it’s legal, not everything that’s legal is “Good” or ethical, and not all agents of good or legal causes are ethical and impartial or have integrity.  I find the “you’ve got nothing to hide, do you?” argument extremely stupid and irritating—and it’s not something that can be explained in a sentence or two to someone saying that to you.  I’m not against volunteering information for a good cause, though, and I have done so in the past, but it’s rude to just take it from me without asking and without any explanation, or to subvert my software and computer to do so. 

What’s New at CERIAS

I haven’t posted an update lately of new content on our site, so here’s a bit of a make-up post:

CERIAS Reports & Papers

CERIAS Hotlist


CERIAS Security Seminar Podcast