January 15, 2002
by Bruce Schneier
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In this issue:
The big news of late December was a security flaw in Microsoft's Universal Plug and Play system, a feature in a variety of Windows flavors. On the one hand, this is a big deal: the vulnerability can allow anyone to take over a target computer. On the other hand, this is just one of many similar vulnerabilities in all sorts of software -- Microsoft and non-Microsoft -- and one for which there is no rapidly spreading exploit.
There are several lessons from all of this.
One, the amount of press coverage is not indicative of the level of severity, and the press is the only way to get the news out to the public. This thing got Nimda-like press, but there was no exploit. While it is a critical patch to install, it's not severe enough to trigger the "wake up, drive to work, and install this patch now!" reflex. Unfortunately, the public will have patience for only so many of these stories before their eyes glaze over. The rate of patch installation is decreasing, as people simply stop paying attention.
Two, Microsoft still sacrifices accuracy for public relations value. Here's a quote from Scott Culp, manager of Microsoft's security response center: "This is the first network-based, remote compromise that I'm aware of for Windows desktop systems." I was all set to write a longish rant, calling the statement a lie and listing other network-based remote Windows compromises -- Back Orifice, Nimda, etc., etc., etc. -- but Richard Forno beat me to it. Read his excellent commentary on Microsoft and security.
To combat this, open and public discussion is important. In the first days of the vulnerability, there was a lot of debate in the press: which systems were vulnerable by default, how best to fix the problem, etc. Even the FBI got into the act, albeit with wrong information they later adjusted. The importance here is a multitude of voices and a multitude of views, something that secrecy won't provide. As Greg Guerin commented, when there's a fire in a theater, you want as many audience members as possible to shout "Fire!" rather than sitting around waiting for the theater manager to say it. The theater manager is going to put his own spin on the news, and it's not likely to be an unbiased one.
Three, bug secrecy hurts us all. According to reports, eEye Digital Security told Microsoft about this vulnerability nearly two months before Microsoft released its patch. What's with the two-month delay? It's a simple buffer overflow, and should be patched within days. Delays just increase the likelihood that someone will exploit the vulnerability. (To think, some time ago I criticized eEye for not waiting long enough before releasing a vulnerability. Shows how hard it is to get the balance right.)
Four, Microsoft still pays lip service to security. This vulnerability is a buffer overflow, the easy-to-use low-hanging-fruit automatic-tools-to-fix kind of security vulnerability. It's not new or subtle; buffer overflows have been causing serious security problems for decades. It's an obvious, stupid-ass programming mistake that ANY reasonably implemented security program should have caught. Remember Microsoft's big PR fuss about their Secure Windows Initiative? If it can't catch this simple stuff, how can it secure software against the complex attacks and vulnerabilities? This is a software quality problem, pure and simple. And the real solution is better software design, implementation, and quality procedures, not more patches and alerts and press releases.
And five, complexity equals insecurity. UPnP is a complex set of protocols to support ad hoc peer-to-peer networking. Even though no one uses it, it's installed in a bunch of Microsoft OSs. Even though no one needs it turned on, sometimes it's turned on by default. This kind of "feature feature feature" mentality, without regard to security, means this kind of thing is going to happen again and again. Until software companies are held liable for the code they produce, they will continue to pack their software with needless features and neglect to consider their associated security ramifications.
This vulnerability also illustrates why Microsoft is so keen on bug secrecy. The industry analysts at Gartner issued a warning, urging companies to delay upgrading to Windows XP for "three to six months," lest more of these kind of vulnerabilities surface. If Microsoft had learned of this vulnerability in secret, and fixed it in secret, Gartner would not make any such statements. No one would be the wiser. (But, of course, if Microsoft learned of this vulnerability in secret, what impetus would they have to fix it quickly? Wouldn't it be easier on everyone if they just rolled it into the next product update?)
Honestly, security experts don't pick on Microsoft because we have some fundamental dislike for the company. Indeed, Microsoft's poor products are one of the reasons we're in business. We pick on them because they've done more to harm Internet security than anyone else, because they repeatedly lie to the public about their products' security, and because they do everything they can to convince people that the problems lie anywhere but inside Microsoft. Microsoft treats security vulnerabilities as public relations problems. Until that changes, expect more of this kind of nonsense from Microsoft and its products. (Note to Gartner: The vulnerabilities will come, a couple of them a week, for years and years...until people stop looking for them. Waiting six months isn't going to make this OS safer.)
News article with the Culp quote:
A cyber Underwriters Laboratories?
Block and stream ciphers:
The year in vulnerabilities. This document contains a list (with references) of all the operating systems and applications with vulnerabilities (not necessarily known or public exploits).
Software and liabilities:
Dmitry Sklyarov reached a plea bargain with U.S. attorneys. He's free.
IDSs and false alarms:
Viruses and Trojans will be commonplace on cellphones before long. Lots of them will accept executable code over the air.
Excellent essay by Mike Godwin on digital rights management and the battle between computer companies and entertainment companies:
Two more good essays on the inherent dangers in keeping security vulnerabilities secret, and Microsoft's threat to security:
Judge upholds government in Scarfo case. The evidence surreptitiously gathered from the defendant's computer can be admitted in court.
Good essay on the flaws inherent in large databases, and how they can affect any national ID system:
GAO Security Auditing Guide. Interesting reading.
Yet another report saying the obvious: many companies are vulnerable to cyber attacks.
New virus that infects Shockwave Flash files:
Microsoft caught rigging online poll:
Announcing a Workshop on Economics and Information Security.
Interesting research on full-disclosure and security. This research tracks all the CERT vulnerabilities of 2001 and who discovered them. Only 22 of the 200 vulnerabilities looked at were discovered by vendors.
Interview with Ed Felton on the futility of digital copy prevention:
Network World Magazine named Bruce Schneier a Power Executive for 2002. (I promise to use my power only for good.)
CEO Tom Rowley was named a Technology Pioneer by the World Economic Forum:
Counterpane has its first Asian reseller:
Schneier is speaking about Counterpane and its monitoring services in Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, San Jose, Detroit, and DC. If you are interested in attending, please contact Robin Caputo at <email@example.com>.
Schneier is speaking at the International Security Management Association winter meeting in San Diego on 1/21.
Schneier is speaking at the RSA Conference. He will chair the Cryptographers' Panel on 2/19, and give a solo talk on 2/20 at (ick) 8:00 AM.
Better. Cleaner. Tighter. Multi-platform support. Open source. And it's under development. You can watch the progress on SourceForge. I hope to have beta, with most if not all of the high-priority fixes and enhancements, available for download by the end of the month.
Soon I will be looking for someone to port the code to Linux, Macintosh, and PalmOS.
This company believes they can get the perfect security of a one-time pad, but without the annoyance of long keys.
How will they accomplish this magic? They specify keys with no preset length. Interesting idea, but in practice users will almost always select a short key, because long keys are too hard to manage. However, they argue that the cryptanalyst has to keep in mind the possibility that the user might have used a long key. Presumably the intention is that the cryptanalyst won't be able to rule out any possible plaintext, because there's always some key (no matter how unlikely) that could yield this plaintext. That's the argument, anyway. To make things sound even more secure, they get to use fancy words like "key equivocation."
Pay no attention to the bogosity of this reasoning. AGS ought to know better. There's no such thing as a free lunch, and if you want the unconditional security of a one-time pad, you have to pay for it with long keys. Shannon proved this (a mathematical proof, not open for debate) fifty years ago. You'd think people would have caught on by now.
The AGS Web site has various hard-to-read white papers on it:
And they somehow even got an academic paper published at INDOCRYPT 2001. (Don't ask me how; the program committee has some sharp people on it, and the paper is an embarrassment.)
From: Greg Guerin <glguerinamug.org>
The purpose of liability is to hold someone accountable. Liability is a means to an end, not an end in itself. The end is accountability, and there may be other ways to achieve it. Liability is just one way.
Liability is a tangible cost for making mistakes. Being tangible, it can also be predicted or forecast with some degree of accuracy. Good predictions of the cost rely on experience and analysis. Good decisions come from a history of good predictions. Bad predictions broaden the experience of what contributes to the cost of mistakes, and improves the analysis process. Errors in assessing liability are not just inevitable, but necessary.
Liability can only work when there is a specific "someone" who can be held accountable. That someone could also be a small group. It can't be too large a group, though, or liability fails. "Holding society accountable" is a nice phrase, but it's completely impractical when it comes to liability. Political action and legislation, not liability, are the means to hold an industry, a government, or a society accountable.
Liability also fails if there's no one that can be found and held accountable, or if the consequences of being held accountable are insignificant. People you can't find or hold can't be made accountable, even to criminal laws. People without tangible assets don't care if they are held accountable, because they can't lose anything significant. "Nothing to lose" breaks accountability and liability. That's why tougher laws sometimes have no effect. If you have nothing to lose, then losing more of nothing is still nothing, so what's the difference?
Liability also requires an authority accepted and recognized by both parties. If one party or the other is not governed by the same authority, or simply refuses governance, then liability is just an exercise in public relations. The harmed party can't possibly recover any damages, or even affect the liable party in any way (no consequences). So liability can't work without a mutually accepted authority. For that authority to be effective, though, it needs both laws and the power of enforceable action. Without the laws, the authority is a lawless tyrant. Without enforceable actions, the authority is a paper tiger.
If liability is a cost, then it can be insured against. Insurance is a way to spread risk over a group by partitioning it into small amounts that each group member pays for upfront. That's what an insurance premium is: your fraction of the anticipated overall cost. But insurance only works with a large enough population, or a predictable enough event, or a small enough per-event cost. Small groups, utterly unpredictable events, or high per-event costs mean no insurance. No insurance means you take the entire risk on yourself. Risking everything is, well, risking everything. Lose and you invariably lose big. Win and you may or may not win big.
To get insurance, an insurance company wants to know how reliable something is before insuring against its failure. If reliability is unknown or unknowable, then they just charge a high premium and take a gamble, hoping to spread a loss to other less-risky areas. When we talk about software security, we're really talking about software reliability. Secure software is reliable. Unreliable software is insecure. So software liability insurance is essentially software reliability insurance. Producing unreliable software is simply shifting the costs from initial development into deployment. Producing reliable software costs more in development, but less in deployment and maintenance.
Insurance costs are directly related to reliability. Show that your software is reliable before you release it, then your liability exposure is diminished, and so is your liability insurance cost. If you can't show reliability, or your software fails an expert analysis and assessment of its predicted reliability, then your insurance costs are higher. To lower your insurance costs, you then have to demonstrate in the marketplace that your software is reliable in day-to-day practice in the real world. If it works well enough and long enough, then your insurance costs go down. If it doesn't, then your costs go up. If the costs exceed the revenues from the software, you're losing money keeping the product on the market. So even if the development costs were lower for producing unreliable software, you can still end up losing money if the liability costs are too high.
Liability also acts as a barrier to market entry. If you can't show that your new software is reliable, or that you have a history of producing reliable software, then it costs you more to enter the software marketplace. If you can't pay those entry costs, you can't release the software. Just like in states with mandatory automobile liability insurance, where you can't drive without insurance. Driving without insurance is breaking the law, just as releasing software without insurance would be if liability were the law. Or you have to take on higher risks to enter the market, or you have to get someone reliable (trustworthy) to vouch for your software, or you get a reliable intermediary to distribute your software and provide the insurance, or you limit your liability exposure in other ways.
Entry barriers, however, are basically filtering or censoring mechanisms, and they have costs. One cost is that they keep out anyone who can't afford reliability insurance, or who isn't willing to risk everything they own on a single piece of software. That situation would pretty much kill Free Software and Open Source as software providers. If liability is the law, then disclaiming liability is a lawless act. Then you'd be risking criminal penalties as well as civil ones.
One way to lower the barrier is to limit liability. For example, to no more than the cost of the product. That's not a perfect solution, however, since there's no way to prohibit dangerously unreliable software that's given away or sold for a tiny amount. The problem seems insurmountable until we simply accept the situation as a balance of forces: accountability by liability vs. barriers to entry. We don't have to get it perfect, just reasonably well balanced. We don't have to get it exactly balanced at the outset, either, just set up a system that can evolve with time and experience.
Bad software also has another pressure to contend with: reputation. If it's really bad, people will talk about it. This is true for freely available software just as much as for commercial software. But this speech can only occur if there are no constraints on the public discussion of software quality. Today, some software licenses prohibit certain kinds of public discussions, such as bugs or benchmark results involving the licensed software. This approach may have short-term value to the vendor, but it eventually erodes the reputation of the product or vendor itself. When we can't fairly decide whether to trust something or not, we call it "risky" or even "untrustworthy". A censored discussion is an untrustworthy discussion -- you don't know what's being left out.
Reputations matter. Reputation is cumulative trustworthiness, and must be earned. It can disappear much more rapidly than it was acquired. Reputations are built from trustworthy statements about you made by others. Of course, the reputations of the others matter, too. You don't believe everything some random person tells you, and you don't do everything some random person tells you to do. Well, not unless you're a computer on the Internet.
Reputation is not an absolute, though. If a piece of software is the only game in town, then you have to live with it no matter how bad it is or how awful the vendor acts. But that, too, is a pressure, because some software developer somewhere is eventually going to say "I can do better than this," and then do it. So competition is a way of making a reputation have consequences. In a sense, competition is one of the liabilities of reputation. But only if the entry barriers aren't too high. Competition between elites is too easily turned into collusion between plunderers.
Laws are another pressure on reputation. Really serious harm becomes criminal at some point, so the criminal laws come into effect. Sometimes just a possibility or threat of harm is enough to make a crime, if that threat is severe enough and plausible enough. Or if a hazard to the public is left in an openly dangerous state. In some cases, the laws even prescribe the actions of public officials if the owner of the hazard can't be coerced into action. For example, food and health inspections, fire codes, building condemnation, and so on.
In the end, liability does not stand alone. It's just one part of a larger picture, which is the overall landscape of trustworthiness, reliability, meaningful information, and informed action. Liability isn't a panacea, either. It comes with costs. There are ways to balance the costs against the benefits, but that takes a certain amount of time, experience, and genuine wisdom in order to really work. There's no simple and easy answer. If there were, we almost certainly would have thought of it by now.
From: Markus Kuhn <Markus.Kuhncl.cam.ac.uk>
Your essay provides a sensible and knowledgeable overview of the pitfalls in the design of national identity verification infrastructures, of which photo ID cards are just one aspect. In particular, it avoids the common mistake of basing the entire discussion of national identity infrastructures solely around the question of whether it could have prevented the September 11 plane crashes, a naive and narrow-minded approach taken unfortunately by numerous other commentators.
Nevertheless, I'd like to add a few remarks and offer a few very different conclusions:
Firstly, the discussion on counterfeiting is somewhat misleading as it misses an essential point. While it is true that there are many fake security documents in circulation, the overwhelming majority of these are quite easily spotted by a professional verifier who is properly trained for the document type in question. It might be impossible to design security documents, seals, or even banknotes that any untrained offline user can verify reliably. On the other hand, it requires quite enormous resources to produce independently a convincing replica of a state-of-the-art security document that will pass the inspection of a professional verifier, such as for example a police officer or (hopefully) a bank clerk. Such people would of course have to attend repeated training courses to learn how to verify the security features.
Such courses usually train and examine the verification skills with collections of many different types of fake documents that have to be spotted by participants among genuine ones. The smaller the number of different types of ID documents there are to be verified, the easier and more effective such verification training will become, which is *the* crucial advantage of having one single standard national ID card.
In high-security environments, officers would of course have to be confronted deliberately with high-end sample fake documents during routine work, in order to ensure their continued alertness for dubious reproductions of security features. What is indeed more difficult to spot offline are genuine security documents that were wrongfully issued by the regular producers of these documents, for example with the help of bribed employees in the relevant agencies. But experienced officers know a large number of tricks for plausibility testing of an identity claim (starting with now widely known tricks such as asking for both age and date-of-birth), which would of course not be obsoleted by ID cards. Also, good security management techniques will have to be used to guard issuing facilities, and I hope and trust very much that a nation that manages vast numbers of weapons of mass destruction can handle security management at that scale adequately. If you can't even protect a national identity card issuing facility properly....
Visitors from Continental Europe, where national ID card systems have been used very successfully and have been a part of daily life for many decades, are frequently amused about the bizarre identification rituals and at the same time extremely sloppy document security practise they encounter in those parts of the English speaking world that are so proud of their lack of ID cards. As an anecdotal example, video rental shops in Cambridge didn't accept my EU passport when I applied to become a member, but a utility bill or recent bank statement would do (both merely laserprinted, no standardized form or security features, without any biometric, not routinely carried with me, and orders of magnitude easier to fake). Similarly, I found that many places in the US ask for two forms of photo ID, but then accept completely random laminated pieces of plastic such as photo tickets.
Call it a cultural bias, but I *do* find it personally worrying that anyone who stole a recent bank statement and knows my mother's maiden name and age of my account will be easily able to acquire full access to my account. In countries with national ID cards, any access to my account without both PIN and banking card usually requires the verification of identity via a national ID card. Similarly, national ID cards have to be presented to and are verified by university examiners in many European countries to avoid the for-hire exam sitting practice not uncommon in the US.
How useful a national ID card is depends mostly on a list of which activities make proper identification mandatory, because only in these areas will individuals be effectively protected by the system against impersonation. This is an aspect often forgotten in discussions, and for example in the UK, the idea of a national ID card is still tightly coupled to the unrealistic assumption quoted routinely by its opponents that anyone walking on a street would have to carry one.
There exist decades of solid experience and many detail lessons to be learned from places such as Germany or Scandinavia, where national identity systems have generally been found to be a useful and reassuring security infrastructure that can easily be made compatible with far more paranoid data-protection expectations than those common in the US.
Claims about the uselessness or cost of national identity verification systems should be based first of all on the practical experience and impersonation fraud statistics in countries who have already used such facilities for a long time, instead of mere speculation.
National ID cards obviously will not prevent suicide terrorism. This is simply because it is in the nature of that particular activity that known repeat offenders are rare and post-mortem identification is not even in their interest. Hardly *any* imaginable security mechanism will noticeably deter creative suicide terrorists and all we can hope is that their overall numbers are rather limited.
But an infrastructure for the convenient and reliable verification of identity remains a useful and important element of fraud prevention in daily activities ranging from proof-of-age to university examinations to banking. A single standardized security document with anti-counterfeit features superior to that of high-value banknotes will tremendously increase the effectiveness of card verifier training. It will make it far more difficult to use fake identities than an environment with a bewildering range of identity documents, such as the many different state driver licenses and banking cards used as de facto ID cards in the US today, in which effective verifier training becomes a logistic nightmare.
From: Malcolm Melville <malcolmixa2a.com>
If only those who take measures to prevent their connected system being used to launch attacks on others are to be allowed to be connected to the Internet, how is this to be policed, and how is it to be administered in a manner that does not prevent legitimate users from being connected? The law seems to be a very blunt instrument -- which largely acts after the event currently -- and were it used up front, the hurdles put in the way of small companies or individuals could be onerous to the point of a denial of freedom of movement within the netWorld.
I understand where your brief article is coming from and agree with what you wrote, but the implications maybe need further expansion. For example, should telcos and service providers be obliged to provide the first line of defence in order to prevent their subscribers' machines from being abused, rather than requiring each connected entity to take that responsibility? The relationship may then not be symmetrical, since as a subscriber, I would want to put in place my own defences to protect myself and my data, whereas the responsibility for preventing my machines from being used for attacking others is that of the service provider. These may well be different security issues, with different costs, borne by different parties.
Was there not in the past a way in which Apple Macs could be used to launch distributed DoS attacks without the user even being aware of it? Whose responsibility is it then to prevent -- as far as is possible -- such an occurrence?
Similarly, when mail relay was open by default on sendmail, whose responsibility was it if the daemon was used for a mass relay of stuff leading to a mail DoS? The software supplier, the subscriber running the daemon or the service provider for not stopping the daemon being used in that way?
The way your article concluded, we could end up with restrictions on who is allowed to be connected simply because of a risk profile that says they may not be able to correctly configure a service. Maybe we need something like a driver's license that grants you the right to use the electronic highway, and can be endorsed or removed if you use the vehicle in the wrong manner?
From: Alexander Gantman <agantmanqualcomm.com>
Have you seen the PA law on computer crime?
My favorite part is the definition of "computer":
"Computer. An electronic, magnetic, optical, hydraulic, organic or other high speed data processing device or system which performs logic, arithmetic or memory functions and includes all input, output, processing, storage, software or communication facilities which are connected or related to the device in a system or network."
Hmm, an organic system which performs logic or memory functions.... It seems obvious that animals are computers, but I wonder if plants are as well. Can one claim that plants are performing memory functions by storing information in their DNA?
From: Joergen Ramskov <joergenramskov.org>
I think it's funny how Windows Update forces you to lower your security. If you run IE6 with high security, you get this message:
"To view and download updates for your computer, your Internet Explorer security settings must meet the following requirements:
WindowsUpdate needs to download several ActiveX controls. To keep your PC updated with the latest security fixes, you have no choice but to add Microsoft into the Trusted Sites Zone -- nice.
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CRYPTO-GRAM is written by Bruce Schneier. Schneier is founder and CTO of Counterpane Internet Security Inc., the author of "Secrets and Lies" and "Applied Cryptography," and an inventor of the Blowfish, Twofish, and Yarrow algorithms. He is a member of the Advisory Board of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). He is a frequent writer and lecturer on computer security and cryptography.
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