Essays: 2006 Archives

MySpace Passwords Aren't So Dumb

  • Bruce Schneier
  • Wired
  • December 14, 2006

How good are the passwords people are choosing to protect their computers and online accounts?

It’s a hard question to answer because data is scarce. But recently, a colleague sent me some spoils from a MySpace phishing attack: 34,000 actual user names and passwords.

The attack was pretty basic. The attackers created a fake MySpace login page, and collected login information when users thought they were accessing their own account on the site. The data was forwarded to various compromised web servers, where the attackers would harvest it later…

Why Spam Won't Go Away

  • Bruce Schneier
  • Forbes
  • December 12, 2006

Spam is filling up the Internet, and it’s not going away anytime soon.

It’s not just e-mail. We have voice-over-IP spam, instant message spam, cellphone text message spam, blog comment spam and Usenet newsgroup spam. And, if you think broadly enough, these computer-network spam delivery mechanisms join the ranks of computer telemarketing (phone spam), junk mail (paper spam), billboards (visual space spam) and cars driving through town with megaphones (audio spam). It’s all basically the same thing–unsolicited marketing messages–and only by understanding the problem at this level of generality can we discuss solutions…

My Data, Your Machine

  • Bruce Schneier
  • Wired
  • November 30, 2006

Consider two different security problems. In the first, you store your valuables in a safe in your basement. The threat is burglars, of course. But the safe is yours, and the house is yours, too. You control access to the safe, and probably have an alarm system.

The second security problem is similar, but you store your valuables in someone else’s safe. Even worse, it’s someone you don’t trust. He doesn’t know the combination, but he controls access to the safe. He can try to break in at his leisure. He can transport the safe anyplace he needs to. He can use whatever tools he wants. In the first case, the safe needs to be secure, but it’s still just a part of your overall home security. In the second case, the safe is the only security device you have…

Vote Early, Vote Often

  • Bruce Schneier
  • Wired
  • November 16, 2006

In the world of voting, automatic recount laws are not uncommon. Virginia, where George Allen lost to James Webb in the Senate race by 7,800 out of over 2.3 million votes, or 0.33 percent percent, is an example. If the margin of victory is 1 percent or less, the loser is allowed to ask for a recount. If the margin is 0.5 percent or less, the government pays for it. If the margin is between 0.5 percent and 1 percent, the loser pays for it.

We have recounts because vote counting is — to put it mildly — sloppy. Americans like their election results fast, before they go to bed at night. So we’re willing to put up with inaccuracies in our tallying procedures, and ignore the fact that the numbers we see on television correlate only roughly with reality…

Did Your Vote Get Counted?

  • Bruce Schneier
  • Forbes
  • November 13, 2006

This essay also appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Last week in Florida’s 13th Congressional district, the victory margin was only 386 votes out of 153,000. There’ll be a mandatory lawyered-up recount, but it won’t include the almost 18,000 votes that seem to have disappeared. The electronic voting machines didn’t include them in their final tallies, and there’s no backup to use for the recount. The district will pick a winner to send to Washington, but it won’t be because they are sure the majority voted for him. Maybe the majority did, and maybe it didn’t. There’s …

The Boarding Pass Brouhaha

  • Bruce Schneier
  • Wired
  • November 2, 2006

Last week Christopher Soghoian created a Fake Boarding Pass Generator website, allowing anyone to create a fake Northwest Airlines boarding pass: any name, airport, date, flight.

This action got him visited by the FBI, who later came back, smashed open his front door, and seized his computers and other belongings. It resulted in calls for his arrest — the most visible by Rep. Edward Markey (D-Massachusetts) — who has since recanted. And it’s gotten him more publicity than he ever dreamed of.

All for demonstrating a known and obvious vulnerability in airport security involving boarding passes and IDs…

Do Federal Security Regulations Help?

  • Bruce Schneier
  • Information Security
  • November 2006

This essay appeared as part of a point-counterpoint with Marcus Ranum.

Regulation is all about economics. Here’s the theory. In a capitalist system, companies make decisions based on their own self-interest. This isn’t a bad thing; it’s actually a very good thing. We don’t want companies to act as public charities; we want them to act as for-profit entities. But there are often effects of company decisions that are not borne by the companies; these are known as “externalities” to the decision. Companies aren’t going to take externalities into account, because, well, because they’re someone else’s problem. If we as a society want externalities to factor into company decisions, then we have to make those externalities internal. Once we do that, the natural engine of capitalism will take over…

The Architecture of Security

  • Bruce Schneier
  • Wired
  • October 19, 2006

You’ve seen them: those large concrete blocks in front of skyscrapers, monuments and government buildings, designed to protect against car and truck bombs. They sprang up like weeds in the months after 9/11, but the idea is much older. The prettier ones doubled as planters; the uglier ones just stood there.

Form follows function. From medieval castles to modern airports, security concerns have always influenced architecture. Castles appeared during the reign of King Stephen of England because they were the best way to defend the land and there wasn’t a strong king to put any limits on castle-building. But castle design changed over the centuries in response to both innovations in warfare and politics, from motte-and-bailey to concentric design in the late medieval period to entirely decorative castles in the 19th century…

Casual Conversation, R.I.P.

  • Bruce Schneier
  • Forbes
  • October 18, 2006

The political firestorm over former U.S. Rep. Mark Foley’s salacious instant messages hides another issue, one about privacy. We are rapidly turning into a society where our intimate conversations can be saved and made public later. This represents an enormous loss of freedom and liberty, and the only way to solve the problem is through legislation.

Everyday conversation used to be ephemeral. Whether face-to-face or by phone, we could be reasonably sure that what we said disappeared as soon as we said it. Of course, organized crime bosses worried about phone taps and room bugs, but that was the exception. Privacy was the default assumption…

Why Everyone Must Be Screened

  • Bruce Schneier
  • Wired
  • October 5, 2006

Why should we waste time at airport security, screening people with U.S. government security clearances? This perfectly reasonable question was asked recently by Robert Poole, director of transportation studies at The Reason Foundation, as he and I were interviewed by WOSU Radio in Ohio.

Poole argued that people with government security clearances, people who are entrusted with U.S. national security secrets, are trusted enough to be allowed through airport security with only a cursory screening. They’ve already gone through background checks, he said, and it would be more efficient to concentrate screening resources on everyone else…

Lessons From the Facebook Riots

  • Bruce Schneier
  • Wired
  • September 21, 2006

Earlier this month, the popular social networking site Facebook learned a hard lesson in privacy. It introduced a new feature called “News Feeds” that shows an aggregation of everything members do on the site, such as added and deleted friends, a change in relationship status, a new favorite song, a new interest. Instead of a member’s friends having to go to his page to view any changes, these changes are all presented to them automatically.

The outrage was enormous. One group, Students Against Facebook News Feeds, amassed over 700,000 members. Members planned to protest at the company’s headquarters. Facebook’s founder was completely …

The ID Chip You Don't Want in Your Passport

  • Bruce Schneier
  • Washington Post
  • September 16, 2006

This essay also appeared in San Jose Mercury News, Sacramento Bee, Concord Monitor, Fort Worth Star Telegram, Dallas Morning News, Contra Costa Times, Statesman Journal, and The Clarion-Ledger.

If you have a passport, now is the time to renew it — even if it’s not set to expire anytime soon. If you don’t have a passport and think you might need one, now is the time to get it. In many countries, including the United States, passports will soon be equipped with RFID chips. And you don’t want one of these chips in your passport.

RFID stands for “radio-frequency identification.” Passports with RFID chips store an electronic copy of the passport information: your name, a digitized picture, etc. And in the future, the chip might store fingerprints or digital visas from various countries…

Quickest Patch Ever

  • Bruce Schneier
  • Wired
  • September 7, 2006

If you really want to see Microsoft scramble to patch a hole in its software, don’t look to vulnerabilities that impact countless Internet Explorer users or give intruders control of thousands of Windows machines. Just crack Redmond’s DRM.

Security patches used to be rare. Software vendors were happy to pretend that vulnerabilities in their products were illusory — and then quietly fix the problem in the next software release.

That changed with the full disclosure movement. Independent security researchers started going public with the holes they found, making vulnerabilities impossible for vendors to ignore. Then worms became more common; patching — and patching quickly — became the norm…

Is There Strategic Software?

  • Bruce Schneier
  • Information Security
  • September 2006

This essay appeared as part of a point-counterpoint with Marcus Ranum. Marcus’s side can be found on his website.

If you define “critical infrastructure” as “things essential for the functioning of a society and economy,” then software is critical infrastructure. For many companies and individuals, if their computers stop working then they stop working.

It’s a situation that sneaked up on us. Everyone knew that the software that flies 747s or targets cruise missiles is critical, but who thought of the airlines’ weight and balance computers, or the operating system running the databases and spreadsheets that determine which cruise missiles get shipped where? These sorts of systems are more vulnerable around the edges than they are head-on. And over the years, common, off-the-shelf, personal- and business-grade software has been used for more and more critical applications. Today, we find ourselves in a position where a well-positioned flaw in Windows or Cisco routers or Apache could seriously affect the economy. (Some researchers have suggested that well-designed worms could overwhelm the Internet in fifteen minutes.)…

Refuse to be Terrorized

  • Bruce Schneier
  • Wired
  • August 24, 2006

On Aug. 16, two men were escorted off a plane headed for Manchester, England, because some passengers thought they looked either Asian or Middle Eastern, might have been talking Arabic, wore leather jackets, and looked at their watches — and the passengers refused to fly with them on board.

The men were questioned for several hours and then released.

On Aug. 15, an entire airport terminal was evacuated because someone’s cosmetics triggered a false positive for explosives. The same day, a Muslim man was removed from an airplane in Denver for reciting prayers. The Transportation Security Administration decided that the flight crew overreacted, but he still had to spend the night in Denver before flying home the next day…

Bruce Schneier: Focus on terrorists, not tactics

It's easy to defend against what they planned last time, but it's shortsighted.

  • Bruce Schneier
  • Minneapolis Star Tribune
  • August 13, 2006

Hours-long waits in the security line. Ridiculous prohibitions on what you can carry onboard. Last week’s foiling of a major terrorist plot and the subsequent airport security graphically illustrates the difference between effective security and security theater.

None of the airplane security measures implemented because of 9/11 — no-fly lists, secondary screening, prohibitions against pocket knives and corkscrews — had anything to do with last week’s arrests. And they wouldn’t have prevented the planned attacks, had the terrorists not been arrested. A national ID card wouldn’t have made a difference, either…

Drugs: Sports' Prisoner's Dilemma

  • Bruce Schneier
  • Wired
  • August 10, 2006

The big news in professional bicycle racing is that Floyd Landis may be stripped of his Tour de France title because he tested positive for a banned performance-enhancing drug. Sidestepping the issues of whether professional athletes should be allowed to take performance-enhancing drugs, how dangerous those drugs are, and what constitutes a performance-enhancing drug in the first place, I’d like to talk about the security and economic issues surrounding the issue of doping in professional sports.

Drug testing is a security issue. Various sports federations around the world do their best to detect illegal doping, and players do their best to evade the tests. It’s a classic security arms race: Improvements in detection technologies lead to improvements in drug-detection evasion, which in turn spur the development of better detection capabilities. Right now, it seems that the drugs are winning; in places, these drug tests are described as “intelligence tests”: If you can’t get around them, you don’t deserve to play…

How Bot Those Nets?

  • Bruce Schneier
  • Wired
  • July 27, 2006

What could you do if you controlled a network of thousands of computers — or, at least, could use the spare processor cycles on those machines? You could perform massively parallel computations: model nuclear explosions or global weather patterns, factor large numbers or find Mersenne primes, or break cryptographic problems.

All of these are legitimate applications. And you can visit distributed.net and download software that allows you to donate your spare computer cycles to some of these projects. (You can help search for Optimal Golomb Rulers…

Google's Click-Fraud Crackdown

  • Bruce Schneier
  • Wired
  • July 13, 2006

Google’s $6 billion-a-year advertising business is at risk because it can’t be sure that anyone is looking at its ads. The problem is called click fraud, and it comes in two basic flavors.

With network click fraud, you host Google AdSense advertisements on your own website. Google pays you every time someone clicks on its ad on your site. It’s fraud if you sit at the computer and repeatedly click on the ad or — better yet — write a computer program that repeatedly clicks on the ad. That kind of fraud is easy for Google to spot, so the clever network click fraudsters simulate different IP addresses, or install Trojan horses on other people’s computers to generate the fake clicks…

Are Security Certifications Valuable?

  • Bruce Schneier
  • Information Security
  • July 2006

This essay appeared as part of a point-counterpoint with Marcus Ranum.

I’ve long been hostile to certifications — I’ve met too many bad security professionals with certifications and know many excellent security professionals without certifications. But, I’ve come to believe that, while certifications aren’t perfect, they’re a decent way for a security professional to learn some of the things he’s going to know, and a potential employer to assess whether a job candidate has the security expertise he’s going to need to know.

What’s changed? Both the job requirements and the certification programs…

It's the Economy, Stupid

  • Bruce Schneier
  • Wired
  • June 29, 2006

Italian translation

I’m sitting in a conference room at Cambridge University, trying to simultaneously finish this article for Wired News and pay attention to the presenter onstage.

I’m in this awkward situation because 1) this article is due tomorrow, and 2) I’m attending the fifth Workshop on the Economics of Information Security, or WEIS: to my mind, the most interesting computer security conference of the year.

The idea that economics has anything to do with computer security is relatively new. Ross Anderson and I seem to have stumbled upon the idea independently. He, in his brilliant article from 2001, “…

The Scariest Terror Threat of All

  • Bruce Schneier
  • Wired
  • June 15, 2006

For a while now, I have been writing about our penchant for “movie-plot threats” — terrorist fears based on very specific attack scenarios.

Terrorists with crop-dusters, terrorists exploding baby carriages in subways, terrorists filling school buses with explosives — these are all movie-plot threats. They’re good for scaring people, but it’s just silly to build national security policy around them.

But if we’re going to worry about unlikely attacks, why can’t they be exciting and innovative ones? If Americans are going to be scared, shouldn’t they be scared of things that are really scary? “Blowing up the Super Bowl” is a movie plot, to be sure, but it’s …

Make Vendors Liable for Bugs

  • Bruce Schneier
  • Wired
  • June 1, 2006

Have you ever been to a retail store and seen this sign on the register: “Your purchase free if you don’t get a receipt”? You almost certainly didn’t see it in an expensive or high-end store. You saw it in a convenience store, or a fast-food restaurant. Or maybe a liquor store. That sign is a security device, and a clever one at that. And it illustrates a very important rule about security: It works best when you align interests with capability.

If you’re a store owner, one of your security worries is employee theft. Your employees handle cash all day, and dishonest ones will pocket some of it for themselves. The history of the cash register is mostly a history of preventing this kind of theft. Early cash registers were just boxes with a bell attached. The bell rang when an employee opened the box, alerting the store owner — who was presumably elsewhere in the store — that an employee was handling money…

We're Giving Up Privacy and Getting Little in Return

Better to Put People, Not Computers, in Charge of Investigating Potential Plots

  • Bruce Schneier
  • Minneapolis Star Tribune
  • May 31, 2006

Collecting information about every American’s phone calls is an example of data mining. The basic idea is to collect as much information as possible on everyone, sift through it with massive computers, and uncover terrorist plots. It’s a compelling idea, and convinces many. But it’s wrong. We’re not going to find terrorist plots through systems like this, and we’re going to waste valuable resources chasing down false alarms. To understand why, we have to look at the economics of the system.

Data mining works best when you’re searching for a well-defined profile, a reasonable number of attacks per year, and a low cost of false alarms. Credit-card fraud is one of data mining’s success stories: All credit-card companies mine their transaction databases for data for spending patterns that indicate a stolen card…

The Eternal Value of Privacy

  • Bruce Schneier
  • Wired
  • May 18, 2006

Finnish translation
French translation [#1]
French translation [#2]
German translation
Italian translation
Japanese translation
Portuguese translation
Spanish translation

The most common retort against privacy advocates — by those in favor of ID checks, cameras, databases, data mining and other wholesale surveillance measures — is this line: “If you aren’t doing anything wrong, what do you have to hide?”

Some clever answers: “If I’m not doing anything wrong, then you have no cause to watch me.” “Because the government gets to define what’s wrong, and they keep changing the definition.” “Because you might do something wrong with my information.” My problem with quips like these — as right as they are — is that they accept the premise that privacy is about hiding a wrong. It’s not. Privacy is an inherent human right, and a requirement for maintaining the human condition with dignity and respect…

Everyone Wants to 'Own' Your PC

  • Bruce Schneier
  • Wired
  • May 4, 2006

When technology serves its owners, it is liberating. When it is designed to serve others, over the owner’s objection, it is oppressive. There’s a battle raging on your computer right now — one that pits you against worms and viruses, Trojans, spyware, automatic update features and digital rights management technologies. It’s the battle to determine who owns your computer.

You own your computer, of course. You bought it. You paid for it. But how much control do you really have over what happens on your machine? Technically you might have bought the hardware and software, but you have less control over what it’s doing behind the scenes…

The Anti-ID-Theft Bill That Isn't

  • Bruce Schneier
  • Wired
  • April 20, 2006

California was the first state to pass a law requiring companies that keep personal data to disclose when that data is lost or stolen. Since then, many states have followed suit. Now Congress is debating federal legislation that would do the same thing nationwide.

Except that it won’t do the same thing: The federal bill has become so watered down that it won’t be very effective. I would still be in favor of it — a poor federal law is better than none — if it didn’t also pre-empt more-effective state laws, which makes it a net loss.

Identity theft is the fastest-growing area of crime. It’s badly named — your identity is the one thing that cannot be stolen — and is better thought of as fraud by impersonation. A criminal collects enough personal information about you to be able to impersonate you to banks, credit card companies, brokerage houses, etc. Posing as you, he steals your money, or takes a destructive joyride on your good credit…

Why VOIP Needs Crypto

  • Bruce Schneier
  • Wired
  • April 6, 2006

There are basically four ways to eavesdrop on a telephone call.

One, you can listen in on another phone extension. This is the method preferred by siblings everywhere. If you have the right access, it’s the easiest. While it doesn’t work for cell phones, cordless phones are vulnerable to a variant of this attack: A radio receiver set to the right frequency can act as another extension.

Two, you can attach some eavesdropping equipment to the wire with a pair of alligator clips. It takes some expertise, but you can do it anywhere along the phone line’s path — even outside the home. This used to be the way the police eavesdropped on your phone line. These days it’s probably most often used by criminals. This method doesn’t work for cell phones, either…

Is User Education Working?

  • Bruce Schneier
  • Information Security
  • April 2006

This essay appeared as part of a point-counterpoint with Marcus Ranum. Marcus’s side can be found on his website.

Marcus, you ignorant slut.

Okay; that’s unfair. You’re not ignorant. You understand technology and security. You’ve spent years steeping in the stuff. You’re fluent in computers – and most importantly – in computer security.

The average users are not. They might be fluent in spreadsheets, or eBay, or sending stupid jokes over e-mail; but they’re not technologists, let alone security people. So of course they’re making all sorts of security mistakes. I too have tried educating users, and I agree that it’s largely futile…

Let Computers Screen Air Baggage

  • Bruce Schneier
  • Wired
  • March 23, 2006

It seems like every time someone tests airport security, airport security fails. In tests between November 2001 and February 2002, screeners missed 70 percent of knives, 30 percent of guns and 60 percent of (fake) bombs. And recently, testers were able to smuggle bomb-making parts through airport security in 21 of 21 attempts. It makes you wonder why we’re all putting our laptops in a separate bin and taking off our shoes. (Although we should all be glad that Richard Reid wasn’t the “underwear bomber.”)

The failure to detect bomb-making parts is easier to understand. Break up something into small enough parts, and it’s going to slip past the screeners pretty easily. The explosive material won’t show up on the metal detector, and the associated electronics can look benign when disassembled. This isn’t even a new problem. It’s widely believed that the Chechen women who blew up the two Russian planes in August 2004 probably smuggled their bombs aboard the planes in pieces…

Your Vanishing Privacy

  • Bruce Schneier
  • Minneapolis Star Tribune
  • March 5, 2006

Over the past 20 years, there’s been a sea change in the battle for personal privacy.

The pervasiveness of computers has resulted in the almost constant surveillance of everyone, with profound implications for our society and our freedoms. Corporations and the police are both using this new trove of surveillance data. We as a society need to understand the technological trends and discuss their implications. If we ignore the problem and leave it to the “market,” we’ll all find that we have almost no privacy left.

Most people think of surveillance in terms of police procedure: Follow that car, watch that person, listen in on his phone conversations. This kind of surveillance still occurs. But today’s surveillance is more like the NSA’s model, recently turned against Americans: Eavesdrop on every phone call, listening for certain keywords. It’s still surveillance, but it’s wholesale surveillance…

U.S. Ports Raise Proxy Problem

  • Bruce Schneier
  • Wired
  • February 23, 2006

Does it make sense to surrender management, including security, of six U.S. ports to a Dubai-based company? This question has set off a heated debate between the administration and Congress, as members of both parties condemned the deal.

Most of the rhetoric is political posturing, but there’s an interesting security issue embedded in the controversy. It’s about proxies, trust, and transparency.

A proxy is a concept I discussed in my book Beyond Fear. It’s a person or organization that acts on your behalf in some way. It’s how complex societies work — it’s impossible for us all to do everything or make every decision, so we cede some authority to proxies…

Security in the Cloud

  • Bruce Schneier
  • Network World
  • February 15, 2006

One of the basic philosophies of security is defense in depth: overlapping systems designed to provide security even if one of them fails. An example is a firewall coupled with an intrusion-detection system (IDS). Defense in depth provides security, because there’s no single point of failure and no assumed single vector for attacks.

It is for this reason that a choice between implementing network security in the middle of the network — in the cloud — or at the endpoints is a false dichotomy. No single security system is a panacea, and it’s far better to do both…

Fighting Fat-Wallet Syndrome

  • Bruce Schneier
  • Wired
  • February 9, 2006

I don’t know about your wallet, but mine contains a driver’s license, three credit cards, two bank ATM cards, frequent-flier cards for three airlines and frequent-guest cards for three hotel chains, memberships cards to two airline clubs, a library card, a AAA card, a Costco membership, and a bunch of other ID-type cards.

Any technologist who looks at the pile would reasonably ask: why all those cards? Most of them are not intended to be hard-to-forge identification cards; they’re simply ways of carrying around unique numbers that are pointers into a database. Why does Visa bother issuing credit cards in the first place? Clearly you don’t need the physical card in order to complete the transaction, as anyone who has bought something over the phone or the internet knows. Your bank could just use your driver’s license number as an account number…

Big Risks Come in Small Packages

  • Bruce Schneier
  • Wired
  • January 26, 2006

Some years ago, I left my laptop computer on a train from Washington to New York. Replacing the computer was expensive, but at the time I was more worried about the data.

Of course I had good backups, but now a copy of all my e-mail, client files, personal writings and book manuscripts were … well, somewhere. Probably the drive would be erased by the computer’s new owner, but maybe my personal and professional life would end up in places I didn’t want them to be.

If anything, this problem has gotten worse. Our digital devices have all gotten smaller, while at the same time they’re carrying more and more sensitive information…

Anonymity Won't Kill the Internet

  • Bruce Schneier
  • Wired
  • January 12, 2006

In a recent essay, Kevin Kelly warns of the dangers of anonymity. It’s OK in small doses, he maintains, but too much of it is a problem: “(I)n every system that I have seen where anonymity becomes common, the system fails. The recent taint in the honor of Wikipedia stems from the extreme ease which anonymous declarations can be put into a very visible public record. Communities infected with anonymity will either collapse, or shift the anonymous to pseudo-anonymous, as in eBay, where you have a traceable identity behind an invented nickname.”…

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.