Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The Next Great Northeastern Blackout


It has already been more than thirteen years since the last great northeastern blackout.  The mean time between such blackouts is roughly twenty years.  

Blackouts are caused by a number of simultaneous component failures that overwhelm the ability of the system to cope.  While the system copes with most component failures so well that the consumer never even notices, there is an upper bound to the number of concurrent failures that it can tolerates. In the face of these failures the system automatically does an orderly protective shutdown that assures its ability to restart within tens of hours to days.

However, such surprising shutdowns are  experienced by the community as a "failure."  One result is finger pointing, blaming, and shaming.  Rather than being seen as a normal and predictable occurrence with a proper and timely response, the Blackout is seen as a "failure" that should have been "prevented."  

These outages are less disruptive than an ice storm.  However, even though they are as natural and as inevitable as weather related outages, they are not perceived that way.  The public and their political representatives see weather related outages as unavoidable but inevitable technology failures as one hundred percent preventable.

Security people understand that perfect prevention has infinite cost.  That as we increase the meantime between outages, we stop, at about twenty years, way short of infinity.  This is in part because the cost of the next increment exceeds the value and in part because we reach a natural limit. We increase the resistance to failure by adding redundancy and automation. However, we do this at the cost of ever increasing complexity.  There is a point, at about twenty years MTBF, at which increased complexity causes more failures than it prevents.

Much of the inconvenience to the public is a function of surprise.  Since they have come to expect prevention, they are not prepared for outages.  The message should be that we are closer to the next Blackout than to the last.  If you are not surprised and are prepared, you will minimize your own cost and inconvenience.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Internet Vulnerability

On March 24, 2017 Gregory Michaelidis wrote in Slate on "Why America’s Current Approach to Cybersecurity Is So Dangerous."

He cited an article by Bruce Schneier.

In response, I observed to a number of colleagues, proteges, and students that "One takeaway from this article and the Schneier article that it points to is that we need to reduce our attack surface.  Dramatically.  Perhaps ninety percent.  Think least privilege access at all layers to include application white-listing, safe dcfaults, end-to-end application layer encryption, and strong authentication."

One colleague responded "I think one reason the cyber attack surface is so large is that the global intel agencies hoard vulnerabilities and exploits..."  Since secret "vulnerabilities and exploits" account for so little of our attack surface, I fear that he missed my point.


While it is true that intelligence agencies enjoy the benefits of our vulnerable systems and are little motivated to reduce the attack surface, the "hoarded vulnerabilities and exploits" are not the attack surface and the intel agencies are not the cause.  

The cause is the IT culture. There is a broad market preference for open networks, systems, and applications. TCP/IP drove the more secure SNA/SDLC from the field. The market prefers Windows and Linux to OS X, Android to iOS, IBM 360 to System 38, MVS to FS, MS-DOS to OS/2, Z Systems to iSeries, Flash to HTML5, von Neumann architecture [Wintel systems] to almost anything else.  

One can get a degree in Computer Science, even in Cyber Security, without ever even hearing about a more secure alternative architecture to von Neumann's [e.g. IBM iSeries. Closed, finite state architecture (operations can take the system only from one valid state to another), limited set of strongly-typed (e.g., data can not be executed, programs cannot be modified) objects, single level store, symbolic only addressing, etc.)]

We prefer to try and stop leakage at the end user device or the perimeter rather than administer access control at the database or file system. We persist in using replayable passwords in preference to strong authentication, even though they are implicated in almost every breach. We terminate encryption on the OS, or even the perimeter, rather than the application. We deploy user programmable systems where application only systems would do.  We enable escape mechanisms and run scripts and macros by default.

We have too many overly privileged users with almost no multi-party controls. We discourage shared UIDs and passwords for end users but default to them for the most privileged users, where we most need accountability. We store our most sensitive information in the clear, as file system objects, on the desktop, rather than encryptied, in document management systems, on servers. We keep our most sensitive data and mission critical apps on the same systems where we run our most vulnerable applications, browsing and e-mail. We talk about defense in depth but operate our enterprise networks flat, any to any connectivity and trust, not structured, not architected. It takes us weeks to months just to detect breaches and more time to fix them.  

I can go on and I am sure you can add examples of your own. Not only is the intelligence community not responsible for this practice, they are guilty of it themselves. It was this practice, not secret vulnerabilities, that was exploited by Snowden. It is this culture, not "hoarded vulnerabilities and exploits," that is implicated in the breaches of the past few years. It defies reason that one person acting alone could collect the data that Snowden did without being detected.  

Nation states do what they do; their targets of choice will yield to their overwhelming force. However, we need not make it so easy. We might not be able to resist dragons but we are yielding to bears and brigands. I admit that the culture is defensive and resistant to change but it will not be changed by blaming the other guy. "We have seen the enemy and he is us."




Wednesday, January 4, 2017

All "Things" are not the Same

My mentor, Robert H. Courtney, Jr.  was one of the great original thinkers in security.  He taught me a number of useful concepts some of which I have codified and call "Courtney's Laws."  At key inflection points in information technology I find it useful to take them out and consider the problems of the day in their light.  The emergence of what has been called the Internet of Things (IoT) is such an occasion. 

Courtney's First Law cautioned us that "Nothing useful can be said about the security of a mechanism except in the context of a specific application and environment."  This law can be usefully applied to the difficult, not to say intractable, problem of the Internet of things (IoT).  All "things" are not the same and, therefore do not have the same security requirements or solutions.

What Courtney does not address is what we mean by "security."  The security that most seem to think about in this context is resistance to interference with the intended function of the "thing" or appliance.  The examples de jour include interference with the operation of an automobile or with a medical device.   However, a greater risk is the that general purpose computer function in the device will be subverted and used for denial of service attacks or brute force attacks against passwords or cryptographic keys.

Key to Courtney's advice are "application" and "environment."  Consider application first.  The security we expect varies greatly with the intended use of the appliance.  We expect different security properties, features, and functions from a car, a pacemaker, a refrigerator, a CCTV camera, a baby monitor, or a "smart"  TV.  This is critical.  Any attempt to treat all these things  the same is doomed to failure.  This is reflected in the tens of different safety standards that the Underwriters Laboratories has for electrical appliances.  Their list includes categories that had not even been invented when the Laboratories were founded at the turn of the last century.

Similarly our requirements vary with the environment in which the device is to be used.  We have different requirements for devices intended to be used in the home, car, airplane, hospital, office, plant, or infrastructure.  Projecting the requirements of any one of these on any other can only result in ineffectiveness and unnecessary cost.  For example, one does not require the same precision, reliability, or resistance to outside interference in a GPS intended for use in an automobile as for one intended for use in an airliner or a cruise ship.  One does not require the same security in a device intended for connection only to private networks as for those intended for direct connection to the public networks.

When I was at IBM, Courtney's First Law became the basis for the security standard for our products.  Product managers were told that the security properties, features, and functions of their product should meet the requirements for the intended application and environment.  The more things one wanted one's product to be used for and the more, or more hostile, the environments that one wanted it to be used in, the more robust the security had to be.  For example, the requirements for a large multi-user system were higher than those for a single user system.  The manager  could assert any claims  or disclaimers that she liked; what she could not do was remain silent.  Just requiring the manager to describe these things made a huge difference.   This was reinforced by requiring her to address this standard in all product plans, reviews, announcements, and marketing materials.  While this standard might not have accomplished magic, it certainly advanced the objective.

Achieving the necessary security for the Internet of things will require a lot of thought, action and, in some cases, invention.  Applying Courtney's First Law is a place to start.  A way to start might be to expect all vendors to speak to the intended application and environment of his product.  For example, is the device intended "only for home use on a home network; not intended for direct connection to the Internet."  While the baby monitor or doorbell must be able to access the Internet, attackers on the Internet should not be able access the baby monitor.