Latest

Yet Another Biometric: Bioacoustic Signatures

Sound waves through the body are unique enough to be a biometric:

“Modeling allowed us to infer what structures or material features of the human body actually differentiated people,” explains Joo Yong Sim, one of the ETRI researchers who conducted the study. “For example, we could see how the structure, size, and weight of the bones, as well as the stiffness of the joints, affect the bioacoustics spectrum.”

[…]

Notably, the researchers were concerned that the accuracy of this approach could diminish with time, since the human body constantly changes its cells, matrices, and fluid content. To account for this, they acquired the acoustic data of participants at three separate intervals, each 30 days apart.

“We were very surprised that people’s bioacoustics spectral pattern maintained well over time, despite the concern that the pattern would change greatly,” says Sim. “These results suggest that the bioacoustics signature reflects more anatomical features than changes in water, body temperature, or biomolecule concentration in blood that change from day to day.”

It’s not great. A 97% accuracy is worse than fingerprints and iris scans, and while they were able to reproduce the biometric in a month it almost certainly changes as we age, gain and lose weight, and so on. Still, interesting.

EDITED TO ADD: This post has been translated into Spanish.

Posted on August 21, 2020 at 6:03 AM13 Comments

Vaccine for Emotet Malware

Interesting story of a vaccine for the Emotet malware:

Through trial and error and thanks to subsequent Emotet updates that refined how the new persistence mechanism worked, Quinn was able to put together a tiny PowerShell script that exploited the registry key mechanism to crash Emotet itself.

The script, cleverly named EmoCrash, effectively scanned a user’s computer and generated a correct—but malformed—Emotet registry key.

When Quinn tried to purposely infect a clean computer with Emotet, the malformed registry key triggered a buffer overflow in Emotet’s code and crashed the malware, effectively preventing users from getting infected.

When Quinn ran EmoCrash on computers already infected with Emotet, the script would replace the good registry key with the malformed one, and when Emotet would re-check the registry key, the malware would crash as well, preventing infected hosts from communicating with the Emotet command-and-control server.

[…]

The Binary Defense team quickly realized that news about this discovery needed to be kept under complete secrecy, to prevent the Emotet gang from fixing its code, but they understood EmoCrash also needed to make its way into the hands of companies across the world.

Compared to many of today’s major cybersecurity firms, all of which have decades of history behind them, Binary Defense was founded in 2014, and despite being one of the industry’s up-and-comers, it doesn’t yet have the influence and connections to get this done without news of its discovery leaking, either by accident or because of a jealous rival.

To get this done, Binary Defense worked with Team CYMRU, a company that has a decades-long history of organizing and participating in botnet takedowns.

Working behind the scenes, Team CYMRU made sure that EmoCrash made its way into the hands of national Computer Emergency Response Teams (CERTs), which then spread it to the companies in their respective jurisdictions.

According to James Shank, Chief Architect for Team CYMRU, the company has contacts with more than 125 national and regional CERT teams, and also manages a mailing list through which it distributes sensitive information to more than 6,000 members. Furthermore, Team CYMRU also runs a biweekly group dedicated to dealing with Emotet’s latest shenanigans.

This broad and well-orchestrated effort has helped EmoCrash make its way around the globe over the course of the past six months.

[…]

Either by accident or by figuring out there was something wrong in its persistence mechanism, the Emotet gang did, eventually, changed its entire persistence mechanism on Aug. 6—exactly six months after Quinn made his initial discovery.

EmoCrash may not be useful to anyone anymore, but for six months, this tiny PowerShell script helped organizations stay ahead of malware operations—a truly rare sight in today’s cyber-security field.

Posted on August 18, 2020 at 6:03 AM17 Comments

5G Security

The security risks inherent in Chinese-made 5G networking equipment are easy to understand. Because the companies that make the equipment are subservient to the Chinese government, they could be forced to include backdoors in the hardware or software to give Beijing remote access. Eavesdropping is also a risk, although efforts to listen in would almost certainly be detectable. More insidious is the possibility that Beijing could use its access to degrade or disrupt communications services in the event of a larger geopolitical conflict. Since the internet, especially the “internet of things,” is expected to rely heavily on 5G infrastructure, potential Chinese infiltration is a serious national security threat.

But keeping untrusted companies like Huawei out of Western infrastructure isn’t enough to secure 5G. Neither is banning Chinese microchips, software, or programmers. Security vulnerabilities in the standards­the protocols and software for 5G­ensure that vulnerabilities will remain, regardless of who provides the hardware and software. These insecurities are a result of market forces that prioritize costs over security and of governments, including the United States, that want to preserve the option of surveillance in 5G networks. If the United States is serious about tackling the national security threats related to an insecure 5G network, it needs to rethink the extent to which it values corporate profits and government espionage over security.

To be sure, there are significant security improvements in 5G over 4G­in encryption, authentication, integrity protection, privacy, and network availability. But the enhancements aren’t enough.

The 5G security problems are threefold. First, the standards are simply too complex to implement securely. This is true for all software, but the 5G protocols offer particular difficulties. Because of how it is designed, the system blurs the wireless portion of the network connecting phones with base stations and the core portion that routes data around the world. Additionally, much of the network is virtualized, meaning that it will rely on software running on dynamically configurable hardware. This design dramatically increases the points vulnerable to attack, as does the expected massive increase in both things connected to the network and the data flying about it.

Second, there’s so much backward compatibility built into the 5G network that older vulnerabilities remain. 5G is an evolution of the decade-old 4G network, and most networks will mix generations. Without the ability to do a clean break from 4G to 5G, it will simply be impossible to improve security in some areas. Attackers may be able to force 5G systems to use more vulnerable 4G protocols, for example, and 5G networks will inherit many existing problems.

Third, the 5G standards committees missed many opportunities to improve security. Many of the new security features in 5G are optional, and network operators can choose not to implement them. The same happened with 4G; operators even ignored security features defined as mandatory in the standard because implementing them was expensive. But even worse, for 5G, development, performance, cost, and time to market were all prioritized over security, which was treated as an afterthought.

Already problems are being discovered. In November 2019, researchers published vulnerabilities that allow 5G users to be tracked in real time, be sent fake emergency alerts, or be disconnected from the 5G network altogether. And this wasn’t the first reporting to find issues in 5G protocols and implementations.

Chinese, Iranians, North Koreans, and Russians have been breaking into U.S. networks for years without having any control over the hardware, the software, or the companies that produce the devices. (And the U.S. National Security Agency, or NSA, has been breaking into foreign networks for years without having to coerce companies into deliberately adding backdoors.) Nothing in 5G prevents these activities from continuing, even increasing, in the future.

Solutions are few and far between and not very satisfying. It’s really too late to secure 5G networks. Susan Gordon, then-U.S. principal deputy director of national intelligence, had it right when she said last March: “You have to presume a dirty network.” Indeed, the United States needs to accept 5G’s insecurities and build secure systems on top of it. In some cases, doing so isn’t hard: Adding encryption to an iPhone or a messaging system like WhatsApp provides security from eavesdropping, and distributed protocols provide security from disruption­regardless of how insecure the network they operate on is. In other cases, it’s impossible. If your smartphone is vulnerable to a downloaded exploit, it doesn’t matter how secure the networking protocols are. Often, the task will be somewhere in between these two extremes.

5G security is just one of the many areas in which near-term corporate profits prevailed against broader social good. In a capitalist free market economy, the only solution is to regulate companies, and the United States has not shown any serious appetite for that.

What’s more, U.S. intelligence agencies like the NSA rely on inadvertent insecurities for their worldwide data collection efforts, and law enforcement agencies like the FBI have even tried to introduce new ones to make their own data collection efforts easier. Again, near-term self-interest has so far triumphed over society’s long-term best interests.

In turn, rather than mustering a major effort to fix 5G, what’s most likely to happen is that the United States will muddle along with the problems the network has, as it has done for decades. Maybe things will be different with 6G, which is starting to be discussed in technical standards committees. The U.S. House of Representatives just passed a bill directing the State Department to participate in the international standards-setting process so that it is just run by telecommunications operators and more interested countries, but there is no chance of that measure becoming law.

The geopolitics of 5G are complicated, involving a lot more than security. China is subsidizing the purchase of its companies’ networking equipment in countries around the world. The technology will quickly become critical national infrastructure, and security problems will become life-threatening. Both criminal attacks and government cyber-operations will become more common and more damaging. Eventually, Washington will have do so something. That something will be difficult and expensive­let’s hope it won’t also be too late.

This essay previously appeared in Foreign Policy.

EDITED TO ADD (1/16): Slashdot thread.

EDITED TO ADD (3/16): This essay has been translated into Spanish.

EDITED TO ADD: This essay has been translated into Portuguese.

Posted on January 14, 2020 at 7:42 AM30 Comments

Cyberinsurance and Acts of War

I had not heard about this case before. Zurich Insurance has refused to pay Mondelez International’s claim of $100 million in damages from NotPetya. It claims it is an act of war and therefore not covered. Mondelez is suing.

Those turning to cyber insurance to manage their exposure presently face significant uncertainties about its promise. First, the scope of cyber risks vastly exceeds available coverage, as cyber perils cut across most areas of commercial insurance in an unprecedented manner: direct losses to policyholders and third-party claims (clients, customers, etc.); financial, physical and IP damages; business interruption, and so on. Yet no cyber insurance policies cover this entire spectrum. Second, the scope of cyber-risk coverage under existing policies, whether traditional general liability or property policies or cyber-specific policies, is rarely comprehensive (to cover all possible cyber perils) and often unclear (i.e., it does not explicitly pertain to all manifestations of cyber perils, or it explicitly excludes some).

But it is in the public interest for Zurich and its peers to expand their role in managing cyber risk. In its ideal state, a mature cyber insurance market could go beyond simply absorbing some of the damage of cyberattacks and play a more fundamental role in engineering and managing cyber risk. It would allow analysis of data across industries to understand risk factors and develop common metrics and scalable solutions. It would allow researchers to pinpoint sources of aggregation risk, such as weak spots in widely relied-upon software and hardware platforms and services. Through its financial levers, the insurance industry can turn these insights into action, shaping private-sector behavior and promoting best practices internationally. Such systematic efforts to improve and incentivize cyber-risk management would redress the conditions that made NotPetya possible in the first place. This, in turn, would diminish the onus on governments to retaliate against attacks.

Posted on February 13, 2019 at 6:32 AM27 Comments

Future Cyberwar

A report for the Center for Strategic and International Studies looks at surprise and war. One of the report’s cyberwar scenarios is particularly compelling. It doesn’t just map cyber onto today’s tactics, but completely reimagines future tactics that include a cyber component (quote starts on page 110).

The U.S. secretary of defense had wondered this past week when the other shoe would drop. Finally, it had, though the U.S. military would be unable to respond effectively for a while.

The scope and detail of the attack, not to mention its sheer audacity, had earned the grudging respect of the secretary. Years of worry about a possible Chinese “Assassin’s Mace”—a silver bullet super-weapon capable of disabling key parts of the American military—turned out to be focused on the wrong thing.

The cyber attacks varied. Sailors stationed at the 7th Fleet’ s homeport in Japan awoke one day to find their financial accounts, and those of their dependents, empty. Checking, savings, retirement funds: simply gone. The Marines based on Okinawa were under virtual siege by the populace, whose simmering resentment at their presence had boiled over after a YouTube video posted under the account of a Marine stationed there had gone viral. The video featured a dozen Marines drunkenly gang-raping two teenaged Okinawan girls. The video was vivid, the girls’ cries heart-wrenching the cheers of Marines sickening. And all of it fake. The National Security Agency’s initial analysis of the video had uncovered digital fingerprints showing that it was a computer-assisted lie, and could prove that the Marine’s account under which it had been posted was hacked. But the damage had been done.

There was the commanding officer of Edwards Air Force Base whose Internet browser history had been posted on the squadron’s Facebook page. His command turned on him as a pervert; his weak protestations that he had not visited most of the posted links could not counter his admission that he had, in fact, trafficked some of them. Lies mixed with the truth. Soldiers at Fort Sill were at each other’s throats thanks to a series of text messages that allegedly unearthed an adultery ring on base.

The variations elsewhere were endless. Marines suddenly owed hundreds of thousands of dollars on credit lines they had never opened; sailors received death threats on their Twitter feeds; spouses and female service members had private pictures of themselves plastered across the Internet; older service members received notifications about cancerous conditions discovered in their latest physical.

Leadership was not exempt. Under the hashtag # PACOMMUSTGO a dozen women allegedly described harassment by the commander of Pacific command. Editorial writers demanded that, under the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, he step aside while Congress held hearings.

There was not an American service member or dependent whose life had not been digitally turned upside down. In response, the secretary had declared “an operational pause,” directing units to stand down until things were sorted out.

Then, China had made its move, flooding the South China Sea with its conventional forces, enforcing a sea and air identification zone there, and blockading Taiwan. But the secretary could only respond weakly with a few air patrols and diversions of ships already at sea. Word was coming in through back channels that the Taiwanese government, suddenly stripped of its most ardent defender, was already considering capitulation.

I found this excerpt here. The author is Mark Cancian.

Posted on August 27, 2018 at 6:16 AM53 Comments

E-Mail Vulnerabilities and Disclosure

Last week, researchers disclosed vulnerabilities in a large number of encrypted e-mail clients: specifically, those that use OpenPGP and S/MIME, including Thunderbird and AppleMail. These are serious vulnerabilities: An attacker who can alter mail sent to a vulnerable client can trick that client into sending a copy of the plaintext to a web server controlled by that attacker. The story of these vulnerabilities and the tale of how they were disclosed illustrate some important lessons about security vulnerabilities in general and e-mail security in particular.

But first, if you use PGP or S/MIME to encrypt e-mail, you need to check the list on this page and see if you are vulnerable. If you are, check with the vendor to see if they’ve fixed the vulnerability. (Note that some early patches turned out not to fix the vulnerability.) If not, stop using the encrypted e-mail program entirely until it’s fixed. Or, if you know how to do it, turn off your e-mail client’s ability to process HTML e-mail or—even better—stop decrypting e-mails from within the client. There’s even more complex advice for more sophisticated users, but if you’re one of those, you don’t need me to explain this to you.

Consider your encrypted e-mail insecure until this is fixed.

All software contains security vulnerabilities, and one of the primary ways we all improve our security is by researchers discovering those vulnerabilities and vendors patching them. It’s a weird system: Corporate researchers are motivated by publicity, academic researchers by publication credentials, and just about everyone by individual fame and the small bug-bounties paid by some vendors.

Software vendors, on the other hand, are motivated to fix vulnerabilities by the threat of public disclosure. Without the threat of eventual publication, vendors are likely to ignore researchers and delay patching. This happened a lot in the 1990s, and even today, vendors often use legal tactics to try to block publication. It makes sense; they look bad when their products are pronounced insecure.

Over the past few years, researchers have started to choreograph vulnerability announcements to make a big press splash. Clever names—the e-mail vulnerability is called “Efail“—websites, and cute logos are now common. Key reporters are given advance information about the vulnerabilities. Sometimes advance teasers are released. Vendors are now part of this process, trying to announce their patches at the same time the vulnerabilities are announced.

This simultaneous announcement is best for security. While it’s always possible that some organization—either government or criminal—has independently discovered and is using the vulnerability before the researchers go public, use of the vulnerability is essentially guaranteed after the announcement. The time period between announcement and patching is the most dangerous, and everyone except would-be attackers wants to minimize it.

Things get much more complicated when multiple vendors are involved. In this case, Efail isn’t a vulnerability in a particular product; it’s a vulnerability in a standard that is used in dozens of different products. As such, the researchers had to ensure both that everyone knew about the vulnerability in time to fix it and that no one leaked the vulnerability to the public during that time. As you can imagine, that’s close to impossible.

Efail was discovered sometime last year, and the researchers alerted dozens of different companies between last October and March. Some companies took the news more seriously than others. Most patched. Amazingly, news about the vulnerability didn’t leak until the day before the scheduled announcement date. Two days before the scheduled release, the researchers unveiled a teaser—honestly, a really bad idea—which resulted in details leaking.

After the leak, the Electronic Frontier Foundation posted a notice about the vulnerability without details. The organization has been criticized for its announcement, but I am hard-pressed to find fault with its advice. (Note: I am a board member at EFF.) Then, the researchers published—and lots of press followed.

All of this speaks to the difficulty of coordinating vulnerability disclosure when it involves a large number of companies or—even more problematic—communities without clear ownership. And that’s what we have with OpenPGP. It’s even worse when the bug involves the interaction between different parts of a system. In this case, there’s nothing wrong with PGP or S/MIME in and of themselves. Rather, the vulnerability occurs because of the way many e-mail programs handle encrypted e-mail. GnuPG, an implementation of OpenPGP, decided that the bug wasn’t its fault and did nothing about it. This is arguably true, but irrelevant. They should fix it.

Expect more of these kinds of problems in the future. The Internet is shifting from a set of systems we deliberately use—our phones and computers—to a fully immersive Internet-of-things world that we live in 24/7. And like this e-mail vulnerability, vulnerabilities will emerge through the interactions of different systems. Sometimes it will be obvious who should fix the problem. Sometimes it won’t be. Sometimes it’ll be two secure systems that, when they interact in a particular way, cause an insecurity. In April, I wrote about a vulnerability that arose because Google and Netflix make different assumptions about e-mail addresses. I don’t even know who to blame for that one.

It gets even worse. Our system of disclosure and patching assumes that vendors have the expertise and ability to patch their systems, but that simply isn’t true for many of the embedded and low-cost Internet of things software packages. They’re designed at a much lower cost, often by offshore teams that come together, create the software, and then disband; as a result, there simply isn’t anyone left around to receive vulnerability alerts from researchers and write patches. Even worse, many of these devices aren’t patchable at all. Right now, if you own a digital video recorder that’s vulnerable to being recruited for a botnet—remember Mirai from 2016?—the only way to patch it is to throw it away and buy a new one.

Patching is starting to fail, which means that we’re losing the best mechanism we have for improving software security at exactly the same time that software is gaining autonomy and physical agency. Many researchers and organizations, including myself, have proposed government regulations enforcing minimal security standards for Internet-of-things devices, including standards around vulnerability disclosure and patching. This would be expensive, but it’s hard to see any other viable alternative.

Getting back to e-mail, the truth is that it’s incredibly difficult to secure well. Not because the cryptography is hard, but because we expect e-mail to do so many things. We use it for correspondence, for conversations, for scheduling, and for record-keeping. I regularly search my 20-year e-mail archive. The PGP and S/MIME security protocols are outdated, needlessly complicated and have been difficult to properly use the whole time. If we could start again, we would design something better and more user friendly­but the huge number of legacy applications that use the existing standards mean that we can’t. I tell people that if they want to communicate securely with someone, to use one of the secure messaging systems: Signal, Off-the-Record, or—if having one of those two on your system is itself suspicious—WhatsApp. Of course they’re not perfect, as last week’s announcement of a vulnerability (patched within hours) in Signal illustrates. And they’re not as flexible as e-mail, but that makes them easier to secure.

This essay previously appeared on Lawfare.com.

Posted on June 4, 2018 at 6:33 AM33 Comments

Security Orchestration and Incident Response

Last month at the RSA Conference, I saw a lot of companies selling security incident response automation. Their promise was to replace people with computers ­—sometimes with the addition of machine learning or other artificial intelligence techniques ­—and to respond to attacks at computer speeds.

While this is a laudable goal, there’s a fundamental problem with doing this in the short term. You can only automate what you’re certain about, and there is still an enormous amount of uncertainty in cybersecurity. Automation has its place in incident response, but the focus needs to be on making the people effective, not on replacing them—­ security orchestration, not automation.

This isn’t just a choice of words ­—it’s a difference in philosophy. The US military went through this in the 1990s. What was called the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) was supposed to change how warfare was fought. Satellites, drones and battlefield sensors were supposed to give commanders unprecedented information about what was going on, while networked soldiers and weaponry would enable troops to coordinate to a degree never before possible. In short, the traditional fog of war would be replaced by perfect information, providing certainty instead of uncertainty. They, too, believed certainty would fuel automation and, in many circumstances, allow technology to replace people.

Of course, it didn’t work out that way. The US learned in Afghanistan and Iraq that there are a lot of holes in both its collection and coordination systems. Drones have their place, but they can’t replace ground troops. The advances from the RMA brought with them some enormous advantages, especially against militaries that didn’t have access to the same technologies, but never resulted in certainty. Uncertainty still rules the battlefield, and soldiers on the ground are still the only effective way to control a region of territory.

But along the way, we learned a lot about how the feeling of certainty affects military thinking. Last month, I attended a lecture on the topic by H.R. McMaster. This was before he became President Trump’s national security advisor-designate. Then, he was the director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center. His lecture touched on many topics, but at one point he talked about the failure of the RMA. He confirmed that military strategists mistakenly believed that data would give them certainty. But he took this change in thinking further, outlining the ways this belief in certainty had repercussions in how military strategists thought about modern conflict.

McMaster’s observations are directly relevant to Internet security incident response. We too have been led to believe that data will give us certainty, and we are making the same mistakes that the military did in the 1990s. In a world of uncertainty, there’s a premium on understanding, because commanders need to figure out what’s going on. In a world of certainty, knowing what’s going on becomes a simple matter of data collection.

I see this same fallacy in Internet security. Many companies exhibiting at the RSA Conference promised to collect and display more data and that the data will reveal everything. This simply isn’t true. Data does not equal information, and information does not equal understanding. We need data, but we also must prioritize understanding the data we have over collecting ever more data. Much like the problems with bulk surveillance, the “collect it all” approach provides minimal value over collecting the specific data that’s useful.

In a world of uncertainty, the focus is on execution. In a world of certainty, the focus is on planning. I see this manifesting in Internet security as well. My own Resilient Systems ­—now part of IBM Security—­ allows incident response teams to manage security incidents and intrusions. While the tool is useful for planning and testing, its real focus is always on execution.

Uncertainty demands initiative, while certainty demands synchronization. Here, again, we are heading too far down the wrong path. The purpose of all incident response tools should be to make the human responders more effective. They need both the ability and the capability to exercise it effectively.

When things are uncertain, you want your systems to be decentralized. When things are certain, centralization is more important. Good incident response teams know that decentralization goes hand in hand with initiative. And finally, a world of uncertainty prioritizes command, while a world of certainty prioritizes control. Again, effective incident response teams know this, and effective managers aren’t scared to release and delegate control.

Like the US military, we in the incident response field have shifted too much into the world of certainty. We have prioritized data collection, preplanning, synchronization, centralization and control. You can see it in the way people talk about the future of Internet security, and you can see it in the products and services offered on the show floor of the RSA Conference.

Automation, too, is fixed. Incident response needs to be dynamic and agile, because you are never certain and there is an adaptive, malicious adversary on the other end. You need a response system that has human controls and can modify itself on the fly. Automation just doesn’t allow a system to do that to the extent that’s needed in today’s environment. Just as the military shifted from trying to replace the soldier to making the best soldier possible, we need to do the same.

For some time, I have been talking about incident response in terms of OODA loops. This is a way of thinking about real-time adversarial relationships, originally developed for airplane dogfights, but much more broadly applicable. OODA stands for observe-orient-decide-act, and it’s what people responding to a cybersecurity incident do constantly, over and over again. We need tools that augment each of those four steps. These tools need to operate in a world of uncertainty, where there is never enough data to know everything that is going on. We need to prioritize understanding, execution, initiative, decentralization and command.

At the same time, we’re going to have to make all of this scale. If anything, the most seductive promise of a world of certainty and automation is that it allows defense to scale. The problem is that we’re not there yet. We can automate and scale parts of IT security, such as antivirus, automatic patching and firewall management, but we can’t yet scale incident response. We still need people. And we need to understand what can be automated and what can’t be.

The word I prefer is orchestration. Security orchestration represents the union of people, process and technology. It’s computer automation where it works, and human coordination where that’s necessary. It’s networked systems giving people understanding and capabilities for execution. It’s making those on the front lines of incident response the most effective they can be, instead of trying to replace them. It’s the best approach we have for cyberdefense.

Automation has its place. If you think about the product categories where it has worked, they’re all areas where we have pretty strong certainty. Automation works in antivirus, firewalls, patch management and authentication systems. None of them is perfect, but all those systems are right almost all the time, and we’ve developed ancillary systems to deal with it when they’re wrong.

Automation fails in incident response because there’s too much uncertainty. Actions can be automated once the people understand what’s going on, but people are still required. For example, IBM’s Watson for Cyber Security provides insights for incident response teams based on its ability to ingest and find patterns in an enormous amount of freeform data. It does not attempt a level of understanding necessary to take people out of the equation.

From within an orchestration model, automation can be incredibly powerful. But it’s the human-centric orchestration model—­ the dashboards, the reports, the collaboration—­ that makes automation work. Otherwise, you’re blindly trusting the machine. And when an uncertain process is automated, the results can be dangerous.

Technology continues to advance, and this is all a changing target. Eventually, computers will become intelligent enough to replace people at real-time incident response. My guess, though, is that computers are not going to get there by collecting enough data to be certain. More likely, they’ll develop the ability to exhibit understanding and operate in a world of uncertainty. That’s a much harder goal.

Yes, today, this is all science fiction. But it’s not stupid science fiction, and it might become reality during the lifetimes of our children. Until then, we need people in the loop. Orchestration is a way to achieve that.

This essay previously appeared on the Security Intelligence blog.

Posted on March 29, 2017 at 6:16 AM59 Comments

A Revised Taxonomy of Social Networking Data

Lately I’ve been reading about user security and privacy—control, really—on social networking sites. The issues are hard and the solutions harder, but I’m seeing a lot of confusion in even forming the questions. Social networking sites deal with several different types of user data, and it’s essential to separate them.

Below is my taxonomy of social networking data, which I first presented at the Internet Governance Forum meeting last November, and again—revised—at an OECD workshop on the role of Internet intermediaries in June.

  • Service data is the data you give to a social networking site in order to use it. Such data might include your legal name, your age, and your credit-card number.
  • Disclosed data is what you post on your own pages: blog entries, photographs, messages, comments, and so on.
  • Entrusted data is what you post on other people’s pages. It’s basically the same stuff as disclosed data, but the difference is that you don’t have control over the data once you post it—another user does.
  • Incidental data is what other people post about you: a paragraph about you that someone else writes, a picture of you that someone else takes and posts. Again, it’s basically the same stuff as disclosed data, but the difference is that you don’t have control over it, and you didn’t create it in the first place.
  • Behavioral data is data the site collects about your habits by recording what you do and who you do it with. It might include games you play, topics you write about, news articles you access (and what that says about your political leanings), and so on.
  • Derived data is data about you that is derived from all the other data. For example, if 80 percent of your friends self-identify as gay, you’re likely gay yourself.

There are other ways to look at user data. Some of it you give to the social networking site in confidence, expecting the site to safeguard the data. Some of it you publish openly and others use it to find you. And some of it you share only within an enumerated circle of other users. At the receiving end, social networking sites can monetize all of it: generally by selling targeted advertising.

Different social networking sites give users different rights for each data type. Some are always private, some can be made private, and some are always public. Some can be edited or deleted—I know one site that allows entrusted data to be edited or deleted within a 24-hour period—and some cannot. Some can be viewed and some cannot.

It’s also clear that users should have different rights with respect to each data type. We should be allowed to export, change, and delete disclosed data, even if the social networking sites don’t want us to. It’s less clear what rights we have for entrusted data—and far less clear for incidental data. If you post pictures from a party with me in them, can I demand you remove those pictures—or at least blur out my face? (Go look up the conviction of three Google executives in Italian court over a YouTube video.) And what about behavioral data? It’s frequently a critical part of a social networking site’s business model. We often don’t mind if a site uses it to target advertisements, but are less sanguine when it sells data to third parties.

As we continue our conversations about what sorts of fundamental rights people have with respect to their data, and more countries contemplate regulation on social networking sites and user data, it will be important to keep this taxonomy in mind. The sorts of things that would be suitable for one type of data might be completely unworkable and inappropriate for another.

This essay previously appeared in IEEE Security & Privacy.

Edited to add: this post has been translated into Portuguese.

Posted on August 10, 2010 at 6:51 AM39 Comments

In Praise of Security Theater

While visiting some friends and their new baby in the hospital last week, I noticed an interesting bit of security. To prevent infant abduction, all babies had RFID tags attached to their ankles by a bracelet. There are sensors on the doors to the maternity ward, and if a baby passes through, an alarm goes off.

Infant abduction is rare, but still a risk. In the last 22 years, about 233 such abductions have occurred in the United States. About 4 million babies are born each year, which means that a baby has a 1-in-375,000 chance of being abducted. Compare this with the infant mortality rate in the U.S.—one in 145—and it becomes clear where the real risks are.

And the 1-in-375,000 chance is not today’s risk. Infant abduction rates have plummeted in recent years, mostly due to education programs at hospitals.

So why are hospitals bothering with RFID bracelets? I think they’re primarily to reassure the mothers. Many times during my friends’ stay at the hospital the doctors had to take the baby away for this or that test. Millions of years of evolution have forged a strong bond between new parents and new baby; the RFID bracelets are a low-cost way to ensure that the parents are more relaxed when their baby was out of their sight.

Security is both a reality and a feeling. The reality of security is mathematical, based on the probability of different risks and the effectiveness of different countermeasures. We know the infant abduction rates and how well the bracelets reduce those rates. We also know the cost of the bracelets, and can thus calculate whether they’re a cost-effective security measure or not. But security is also a feeling, based on individual psychological reactions to both the risks and the countermeasures. And the two things are different: You can be secure even though you don’t feel secure, and you can feel secure even though you’re not really secure.

The RFID bracelets are what I’ve come to call security theater: security primarily designed to make you feel more secure. I’ve regularly maligned security theater as a waste, but it’s not always, and not entirely, so.

It’s only a waste if you consider the reality of security exclusively. There are times when people feel less secure than they actually are. In those cases—like with mothers and the threat of baby abduction—a palliative countermeasure that primarily increases the feeling of security is just what the doctor ordered.

Tamper-resistant packaging for over-the-counter drugs started to appear in the 1980s, in response to some highly publicized poisonings. As a countermeasure, it’s largely security theater. It’s easy to poison many foods and over-the-counter medicines right through the seal—with a syringe, for example—or to open and replace the seal well enough that an unwary consumer won’t detect it. But in the 1980s, there was a widespread fear of random poisonings in over-the-counter medicines, and tamper-resistant packaging brought people’s perceptions of the risk more in line with the actual risk: minimal.

Much of the post-9/11 security can be explained by this as well. I’ve often talked about the National Guard troops in airports right after the terrorist attacks, and the fact that they had no bullets in their guns. As a security countermeasure, it made little sense for them to be there. They didn’t have the training necessary to improve security at the checkpoints, or even to be another useful pair of eyes. But to reassure a jittery public that it’s OK to fly, it was probably the right thing to do.

Security theater also addresses the ancillary risk of lawsuits. Lawsuits are ultimately decided by juries, or settled because of the threat of jury trial, and juries are going to decide cases based on their feelings as well as the facts. It’s not enough for a hospital to point to infant abduction rates and rightly claim that RFID bracelets aren’t worth it; the other side is going to put a weeping mother on the stand and make an emotional argument. In these cases, security theater provides real security against the legal threat.

Like real security, security theater has a cost. It can cost money, time, concentration, freedoms and so on. It can come at the cost of reducing the things we can do. Most of the time security theater is a bad trade-off, because the costs far outweigh the benefits. But there are instances when a little bit of security theater makes sense.

We make smart security trade-offs—and by this I mean trade-offs for genuine security—when our feeling of security closely matches the reality. When the two are out of alignment, we get security wrong. Security theater is no substitute for security reality, but, used correctly, security theater can be a way of raising our feeling of security so that it more closely matches the reality of security. It makes us feel more secure handing our babies off to doctors and nurses, buying over-the-counter medicines, and flying on airplanes—closer to how secure we should feel if we had all the facts and did the math correctly.

Of course, too much security theater and our feeling of security becomes greater than the reality, which is also bad. And others—politicians, corporations and so on—can use security theater to make us feel more secure without doing the hard work of actually making us secure. That’s the usual way security theater is used, and why I so often malign it.

But to write off security theater completely is to ignore the feeling of security. And as long as people are involved with security trade-offs, that’s never going to work.

This essay appeared on Wired.com, and is dedicated to my new godson, Nicholas Quillen Perry.

EDITED TO ADD: This essay has been translated into Portuguese.

Posted on January 25, 2007 at 5:50 AM78 Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.