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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.)

This time, the Senate

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

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

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

The Senator made a nice introductory statement.

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned.

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

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

Do we need a new Internet?

Short answer: " Almost certainly, no."  

Longer answer:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As I noted before:

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

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

An Aside

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

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

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

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

Unsecured Economies, and Overly-secured Reports

The Report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting the Report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.]

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!


The Vulnerability Protection Racket

TippingPoint’s Zero Day Initiative (ZDI) gives interesting data.  TippingPoint’s ZDI has made public its “disclosure pipeline” on August 28, 2006.  As of today, it has 49 vulnerabilities from independent researchers, which have been waiting on average 114 days for a fix.  There are also 12 vulnerabilities from TippingPoint’s researchers as well.  With those included, the average waiting time for a fix is 122 days, or about 4 months!  Moreover, 56 out of 61 are high severity vulnerabilities.  These are from high profile vendors: Microsoft, HP, Novell, Apple, IBM Tivoli, Symantec, Computer Associates, Oracle…  Some high severity issues have been languishing for more than 9 months.

Hum.  ZDI is supposed to be a “best-of-breed model for rewarding security researchers for responsibly disclosing discovered vulnerabilities. ”  How is it responsible to take 9 months to fix a known but secret high severity vulnerability?  It’s not directly ZDI’s fault that the vendors are taking so long, but then it’s not providing much incentive either to the vendors.  This suggests that programs like ZDI’s have a pernicious effect.  They buy the information from researchers, who are then forbidden from disclosing the vulnerabilities.  More vulnerabilities are found due to the monetary incentive, but only people paying for protection services have any peace of mind.  The software vendors don’t care much, as the vulnerabilities remain secret.  The rest of us are worse off than before because more vulnerabilities remain secret for an unreasonable length of time.

Interestingly, this is what was predicted several years ago in “Market for Software Vulnerabilities?  Think Again” (2005) Kannan K and Telang R, Management Science 51, pp. 726-740.  The model predicted worse social consequences from these programs than no vulnerability handling at all due to races with crackers, increased vulnerability volume, and unequal protection of targets.  This makes another conclusion of the paper interesting and likely valid:  CERT/CC offering rewards to vulnerability discoverers should provide the best outcomes, because information would be shared systematically and equally.  I would add that CERT/CC is also in a good position to find out if a vulnerability is being exploited in the wild, in which case it can release an advisory and make vulnerability information public sooner.  A vendor like TippingPoint has a conflict of interest in doing so, because it decreases the value of their protection services.

I tip my hat to TippingPoint for making their pipeline information public.  However, because they provide no deadlines to vendors or incentives for responsibly patching the vulnerabilities, the very existence of their services and similar ones from other vendors are hurting those who don’t subscribe.  That’s what makes vulnerability protection services a racket. 


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