Essays: 2007 Archives
Last year, Netflix published 10 million movie rankings by 500,000 customers, as part of a challenge for people to come up with better recommendation systems than the one the company was using. The data was anonymized by removing personal details and replacing names with random numbers, to protect the privacy of the recommenders.
Arvind Narayanan and Vitaly Shmatikov, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin, de-anonymized some of the Netflix data by comparing rankings and timestamps with public information in the Internet Movie Database, or IMDb.
Their research (.pdf) illustrates some inherent security problems with anonymous data, but first it's important to explain what they did and did not do.
Bruce Schneier and Marcus Ranum look at the security landscape of the next 10 years.Bruce Schneier
Predictions are easy and difficult. Roy Amara of the Institute for the Future once said: "We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run."
Moore's Law is easy: In 10 years, computers will be 100 times more powerful. My desktop will fit into my cell phone, we'll have gigabit wireless connectivity everywhere, and personal networks will connect our computing devices and the remote services we subscribe to. Other aspects of the future are much more difficult to predict.
Computer security is hard. Software, computer and network security are all ongoing battles between attacker and defender. And in many cases the attacker has an inherent advantage: He only has to find one network flaw, while the defender has to find and fix every flaw.
Cryptography is an exception.
Random numbers are critical for cryptography: for encryption keys, random authentication challenges, initialization vectors, nonces, key-agreement schemes, generating prime numbers and so on. Break the random-number generator, and most of the time you break the entire security system. Which is why you should worry about a new random-number standard that includes an algorithm that is slow, badly designed and just might contain a backdoor for the National Security Agency.
Generating random numbers isn't easy, and researchers have discovered lots of problems and attacks over the years.
This essay appeared as the second half of a point/counterpoint with Marcus Ranum. Marcus's half is here.
The biggest problems in discussing cyberwar are the definitions. The things most often described as cyberwar are really cyberterrorism, and the things most often described as cyberterrorism are more like cybercrime, cybervandalism or cyberhooliganism--or maybe cyberespionage.
At first glance there's nothing new about these terms except the "cyber" prefix.
The hardest thing about working in IT security is convincing users to buy our technologies. An enormous amount of energy has been focused on this problem—risk analyses, ROI models, audits—yet critical technologies still remain uninstalled and important networks remain insecure. I’m constantly asked how to solve this by frustrated security vendors and—sadly—I have no good answer. But I know the problem is temporary: in the long run, the information security industry as we know it will disappear.
We've opened up a new front on the war on terror. It's an attack on the unique, the unorthodox, the unexpected. It's a war on different. If you act different, you might find yourself investigated, questioned and even arrested -- even if you did nothing wrong, and had no intention of doing anything wrong.
It's not true that no one worries about terrorists attacking chemical plants, it's just that our politics seem to leave us unable to deal with the threat.
Toxins such as ammonia, chlorine, propane and flammable mixtures are constantly being produced or stored in the United States as a result of legitimate industrial processes. Chlorine gas is particularly toxic; in addition to bombing a plant, someone could hijack a chlorine truck or blow up a railcar. Phosgene is even more dangerous.
Having a liability clause is one good way to make sure that software vendors fix the security glitches in their products.
Information insecurity is costing us billions. We pay for it—year after year—when we buy security products and services. But all the money we spend isn't fixing the problem, which is insecure software. Typically, such software is badly designed and inadequately tested, comprising poorly implemented features and security vulnerabilities.
The Storm worm first appeared at the beginning of the year, hiding in e-mail attachments with the subject line: "230 dead as storm batters Europe." Those who opened the attachment became infected, their computers joining an ever-growing botnet.
Although it's most commonly called a worm, Storm is really more: a worm, a Trojan horse and a bot all rolled into one. It's also the most successful example we have of a new breed of worm, and I've seen estimates that between 1 million and 50 million computers have been infected worldwide.
Old style worms -- Sasser, Slammer, Nimda -- were written by hackers looking for fame.
As the name implies, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are anonymous. You don't have to sign anything, show ID or even reveal your real name. But the meetings are not private. Anyone is free to attend.
Sports referees are supposed to be fair and impartial. They're not supposed to favor one team over another. And they're most certainly not supposed to have a financial interest in the outcome of a game.
Tim Donaghy, referee for the National Basketball Association, has been accused of both betting on basketball games and fixing games for the mob.
To the average home user, security is an intractable problem. Microsoft has made great strides improving the security of their operating system "out of the box," but there are still a dizzying array of rules, options, and choices that users have to make. How should they configure their anti-virus program? What sort of backup regime should they employ?
I live in Minneapolis, so the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge over the Mississippi River earlier this month hit close to home, and was covered in both my local and national news.
Much of the initial coverage consisted of human interest stories, centered on the victims of the disaster and the incredible bravery shown by first responders: the policemen, firefighters, EMTs, divers, National Guard soldiers and even ordinary people, who all risked their lives to save others. (Just two weeks later, three rescue workers died in their almost-certainly futile attempt to save six miners in Utah.)
Perhaps the most amazing aspect of these stories is that there's nothing particularly amazing about it. No matter what the disaster -- hurricane, earthquake, terrorist attack -- the nation's first responders get to the scene soon after.
Over the past several months, the state of California conducted the most comprehensive security review yet of electronic voting machines. People who I consider to be security experts analyzed machines from three different manufacturers, performing both a red-team attack analysis and a detailed source-code review. Serious flaws were discovered in all machines, and as a result the machines were all decertified for use in California elections.
The reports are worth reading, as is much of the blog commentary on the topic.
If an avian flu pandemic broke out tomorrow, would your company be ready for it?
Computerworld published a series of articles on that question last year, prompted by a presentation analyst firm Gartner gave at a conference last November. Among Gartner's recommendations: "Store 42 gallons of water per data center employee -- enough for a six-week quarantine -- and don't forget about food, medical care, cooking facilities, sanitation and electricity."
And Gartner's conclusion, over half a year later: Pretty much no organizations are ready.
This doesn't surprise me at all.
Two people are sitting in a room together: an experimenter and a subject. The experimenter gets up and closes the door, and the room becomes quieter. The subject is likely to believe that the experimenter's purpose in closing the door was to make the room quieter.
This is an example of correspondent inference theory.
We learned the news in March: Contrary to decades of denials, the U.S. Census Bureau used individual records to round up Japanese-Americans during World War II.
The Census Bureau normally is prohibited by law from revealing data that could be linked to specific individuals; the law exists to encourage people to answer census questions accurately and without fear. And while the Second War Powers Act of 1942 temporarily suspended that protection in order to locate Japanese-Americans, the Census Bureau had maintained that it only provided general information about neighborhoods.
The recently publicized terrorist plot to blow up John F. Kennedy International Airport, like so many of the terrorist plots over the past few years, is a study in alarmism and incompetence: on the part of the terrorists, our government and the press.
Terrorism is a real threat, and one that needs to be addressed by appropriate means. But allowing ourselves to be terrorized by wannabe terrorists and unrealistic plots -- and worse, allowing our essential freedoms to be lost by using them as an excuse -- is wrong.
The alleged plan, to blow up JFK's fuel tanks and a small segment of the 40-mile petroleum pipeline that supplies the airport, was ridiculous.
If you encounter an aggressive lion, stare him down. But not a leopard; avoid his gaze at all costs. In both cases, back away slowly; don't run. If you stumble on a pack of hyenas, run and climb a tree; hyenas can't climb trees.
Everyone had a reaction to the horrific events of the Virginia Tech shootings. Some of those reactions were rational. Others were not.
A high school student was suspended for customizing a first-person shooter game with a map of his school.
Last week I attended the Infosecurity Europe conference in London. Like at the RSA Conference in February, the show floor was chockablock full of network, computer and information security companies. As I often do, I mused about what it means for the IT industry that there are thousands of dedicated security products on the market: some good, more lousy, many difficult even to describe. Why aren't IT products and services naturally secure, and what would it mean for the industry if they were?
Security decisions are generally made for nonsecurity reasons. For security professionals and technologists, this can be a hard lesson. We like to think that security is vitally important. But anyone who has tried to convince the sales VP to give up her department's Blackberries or the CFO to stop sharing his password with his secretary knows security is often viewed as a minor consideration in a larger decision.
The security literature is filled with risk pathologies, heuristics that we use to help us evaluate risks. I've collected them from many different sources.Risks of Risks Exaggerated Risks Downplayed Risks Spectacular Pedestrian Rare Common Personified Anonymous Beyond one’s control More under control Externally imposed Taken willingly Talked about Not discussed Intentional or man-made Natural Immediate Long-term or diffuse Sudden Evolving slowly over time Affecting them personally Affecting others New and unfamiliar Familiar Uncertain Well understood Directed against their children Directed toward themselves Morally offensive Morally desirable Entirely without redeeming features Associated with some ancillary benefit Not like their current situation Like their current situation
When you look over the list of exaggerated and downplayed risks in the table here, the most remarkable thing is how reasonable so many of them seem. This makes sense for two reasons.
This essay appeared as part of a point-counterpoint with Marcus Ranum. Marcus's side, to which this is a response, can be found on his website.
Big Brother isn't what he used to be. George Orwell extrapolated his totalitarian state from the 1940s. Today's information society looks nothing like Orwell's world, and watching and intimidating a population today isn't anything like what Winston Smith experienced.
More than a year ago, I wrote about the increasing risks of data loss because more and more data fits in smaller and smaller packages. Today I use a 4-GB USB memory stick for backup while I am traveling. I like the convenience, but if I lose the tiny thing I risk all my data.
Encryption is the obvious solution for this problem -- I use PGPdisk -- but Secustick sounds even better: It automatically erases itself after a set number of bad password attempts.
Last month Marine Gen. James Cartwright told the House Armed Services Committee that the best cyberdefense is a good offense.
As reported in Federal Computer Week, Cartwright said: "History teaches us that a purely defensive posture poses significant risks," and that if "we apply the principle of warfare to the cyberdomain, as we do to sea, air and land, we realize the defense of the nation is better served by capabilities enabling us to take the fight to our adversaries, when necessary, to deter actions detrimental to our interests."
The general isn't alone. In 2003, the entertainment industry tried to get a law passed (.pdf) giving it the right to attack any computer suspected of distributing copyright-protected material. And there probably isn't a sysadmin in the world who doesn't want to strike back at computers that are blindly and repeatedly attacking their networks.
Data mining for terrorists: It's an idea that just won't die. But it won't find any terrorists, it puts us at greater risk of crimes like identity theft, and it gives the police far too much power in a free society.
The first massive government program to collect dossiers on every American for data mining purposes was called Total Information Awareness. The public found the idea so abhorrent, and objected so forcefully, that Congress killed funding for the program in September 2003.
The human brain is a fascinating organ, but it's an absolute mess. Because it has evolved over millions of years, there are all sorts of processes jumbled together rather than logically organized. Some of the processes are optimized for only certain kinds of situations, while others don't work as well as they could. There's some duplication of effort, and even some conflicting brain processes.
It's called " splash-and-grab," and it's a new way to rob convenience stores. Two guys walk into a store, and one comes up to the counter with a cup of hot coffee or cocoa. He pays for it, and when the clerk opens the cash drawer, he throws the coffee in the clerk's face. The other one grabs the cash drawer, and they both run.
This essay appeared as the first half of a point-counterpoint with Marcus Ranum. Marcus's side can be found on his website.
There are security experts who insist penetration testing is essential for network security, and you have no hope of being secure unless you do it regularly. And there are contrarian security experts who tell you penetration testing is a waste of time; you might as well throw your money away. Both of these views are wrong.
The argument was so obvious it hardly needed repeating. Some thought we would all be safer -- from terrorism, from crime, even from inconvenience -- if we had a better ID card. A good, hard-to-forge national ID is a no-brainer (or so the argument goes), and it's ridiculous that a modern country like the United States doesn't have one.
Still, most Americans have been and continue to be opposed to a national ID card.
Abuses of power and brutality are likelier among private security guards
In Raleigh, N.C., employees of Capitol Special Police patrol apartment buildings, a bowling alley and nightclubs, stopping suspicious people, searching their cars and making arrests.
Sounds like a good thing, but Capitol Special Police isn't a police force at all -- it's a for-profit security company hired by private property owners.
This isn't unique. Private security guards outnumber real police more than 5-1, and increasingly act like them.
Since 9/11, we've spent hundreds of billions of dollars defending ourselves from terrorist attacks. Stories about the ineffectiveness of many of these security measures are common, but less so are discussions of why they are so ineffective. In short: Much of our country's counterterrorism security spending is not designed to protect us from the terrorists, but instead to protect our public officials from criticism when another attack occurs.
Boston, Jan. 31: As part of a guerilla marketing campaign, a series of amateur-looking blinking signs depicting characters in Aqua Teen Hunger Force, a show on the Cartoon Network, were placed on bridges, near a medical center, underneath an interstate highway and in other crowded public places.
The U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology is having a competition for a new cryptographic hash function.
This matters. The phrase "one-way hash function" might sound arcane and geeky, but hash functions are the workhorses of modern cryptography.
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.
Identity theft is the information age's new crime. A criminal collects enough personal data on the victim to impersonate him to banks, credit card companies and other financial institutions. Then he racks up debt in the victim's name, collects the cash and disappears. The victim is left holding the bag.
CLEAR, a private service that prescreens travelers for a $100 annual fee, has come to Kennedy International Airport. To benefit from the Clear Registered Traveler program, which is run by Verified Identity Pass, a person must fill out an application, let the service capture his fingerprints and iris pattern and present two forms of identification. If the traveler passes a federal background check, he will be given a card that allows him to pass quickly through airport security.
Sounds great, but it's actually two ideas rolled into one: one clever and one very stupid.
On Wednesday, Mayor Bloomberg announced that New York will be the first city with 911 call centers able to receive images and videos from cell phones and computers. If you witness a crime, you can not only call in - you can send in a picture or video as well.
This is a great idea that can make us all safer. Often the biggest problem a 911 operator has is getting enough good information from the caller.
San Francisco police have a new law enforcement tool: a car-mounted license-plate scanner. Similar to a radar gun, it reads the license plates of moving or parked cars -- 250 or more per hour -- and links with remote police databases, immediately providing information about the car and its owner. Right now, the police check for unpaid parking tickets. A car that comes up positive on the database is booted.
Ever since I wrote about the 34,000 MySpace passwords I analyzed, people have been asking how to choose secure passwords.
My piece aside, there's been a lot written on this topic over the years -- both serious and humorous -- but most of it seems to be based on anecdotal suggestions rather than actual analytic evidence. What follows is some serious advice.
The attack I'm evaluating against is an offline password-guessing attack.
This article was published under the title "They're Watching."
If you've traveled abroad recently, you've been investigated. You've been assigned a score indicating what kind of terrorist threat you pose. That score is used by the government to determine the treatment you receive when you return to the U.S. and for other purposes as well.
This essay appeared as the second half of a point-counterpoint with Marcus Ranum. Marcus's side can be found on his website.
Personal information protection is an economic problem, not a security problem. And the problem can be easily explained: The organizations we trust to protect our personal information do not suffer when information gets exposed. On the other hand, individuals who suffer when personal information is exposed don't have the capability to protect that information.
This essay is an update of Information security: How liable should vendors be?, Computerworld, October 28, 2004.
Information insecurity is costing us billions. There are many different ways in which we pay for information insecurity. We pay for it in theft, such as information theft, financial theft and theft of service. We pay for it in productivity loss, both when networks stop functioning and in the dozens of minor security inconveniences we all have to endure on a daily basis.
Full disclosure -- the practice of making the details of security vulnerabilities public -- is a damned good idea. Public scrutiny is the only reliable way to improve security, while secrecy only makes us less secure.
Unfortunately, secrecy sounds like a good idea. Keeping software vulnerabilities secret, the argument goes, keeps them out of the hands of the hackers (See The Vulnerability Disclosure Game: Are We More Secure?).
Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.
Schneier on Security is a personal website. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Resilient Systems, Inc.