America's Dilemma: Close Security Holes, or Exploit Them Ourselves

By Bruce Schneier
Wired News
May 01, 2008

On April 27, 2007, Estonia was attacked in cyberspace. Following a diplomatic incident with Russia about the relocation of a Soviet World War II memorial, the networks of many Estonian organizations, including the Estonian parliament, banks, ministries, newspapers and broadcasters, were attacked and -- in many cases -- shut down. Estonia was quick to blame Russia, which was equally quick to deny any involvement.

It was hyped as the first cyberwar: Russia attacking Estonia in cyberspace. But nearly a year later, evidence that the Russian government was involved in the denial-of-service attacks still hasn't emerged. Though Russian hackers were indisputably the major instigators of the attack, the only individuals positively identified have been young ethnic Russians living inside Estonia, who were pissed off over the statue incident.

You know you've got a problem when you can't tell a hostile attack by another nation from bored kids with an axe to grind.

Separating cyberwar, cyberterrorism and cybercrime isn't easy; these days you need a scorecard to tell the difference. It's not just that it’s hard to trace people in cyberspace, it's that military and civilian attacks -- and defenses -- look the same.

The traditional term for technology the military shares with civilians is "dual use." Unlike hand grenades and tanks and missile targeting systems, dual-use technologies have both military and civilian applications. Dual-use technologies used to be exceptions; even things you'd expect to be dual use, like radar systems and toilets, were designed differently for the military. But today, almost all information technology is dual use. We both use the same operating systems, the same networking protocols, the same applications, and even the same security software.

And attack technologies are the same. The recent spurt of targeted hacks against U.S. military networks, commonly attributed to China, exploit the same vulnerabilities and use the same techniques as criminal attacks against corporate networks. Internet worms make the jump to classified military networks in less than 24 hours, even if those networks are physically separate. The Navy Cyber Defense Operations Command uses the same tools against the same threats as any large corporation.

Because attackers and defenders use the same IT technology, there is a fundamental tension between cyberattack and cyberdefense. The National Security Agency has referred to this as the "equities issue," and it can be summarized as follows: When a military discovers a vulnerability in a dual-use technology, they can do one of two things. They can alert the manufacturer and fix the vulnerability, thereby protecting both the good guys and the bad guys. Or they can keep quiet about the vulnerability and not tell anyone, thereby leaving the good guys insecure but also leaving the bad guys insecure.

The equities issue has long been hotly debated inside the NSA. Basically, the NSA has two roles: eavesdrop on their stuff, and protect our stuff. When both sides use the same stuff, the agency has to decide whether to exploit vulnerabilities to eavesdrop on their stuff or close the same vulnerabilities to protect our stuff.

In the 1980s and before, the tendency of the NSA was to keep vulnerabilities to themselves. In the 1990s, the tide shifted, and the NSA was starting to open up and help us all improve our security defense. But after the attacks of 9/11, the NSA shifted back to the attack: vulnerabilities were to be hoarded in secret. Slowly, things in the U.S. are shifting back again.

So now we're seeing the NSA help secure Windows Vista and releasing their own version of Linux. The DHS, meanwhile, is funding a project to secure popular open source software packages, and across the Atlantic the UK’s GCHQ is finding bugs in PGPDisk and reporting them back to the company. (NSA is rumored to be doing the same thing with BitLocker.)

I'm in favor of this trend, because my security improves for free. Whenever the NSA finds a security problem and gets the vendor to fix it, our security gets better. It's a side-benefit of dual-use technologies.

But I want governments to do more. I want them to use their buying power to improve my security. I want them to offer countrywide contracts for software, both security and non-security, that have explicit security requirements. If these contracts are big enough, companies will work to modify their products to meet those requirements. And again, we all benefit from the security improvements.

The only example of this model I know about is a U.S. government-wide procurement competition for full-disk encryption, but this can certainly be done with firewalls, intrusion detection systems, databases, networking hardware, even operating systems.

When it comes to IT technologies, the equities issue should be a no-brainer. The good uses of our common hardware, software, operating systems, network protocols, and everything else vastly outweigh the bad uses. It's time that the government used its immense knowledge and experience, as well as its buying power, to improve cybersecurity for all of us.

earlier essay: The Ethics of Vulnerability Research
later essay: Crossing Borders with Laptops and PDAs
categories: Cyberwar and Cyberterrorism, Computer and Information Security, National Security Policy
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Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.

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