Essays: 2010 Archives

It Will Soon Be Too Late to Stop the Cyberwars

  • Bruce Schneier
  • Financial Times
  • December 2, 2010

The world is gearing up for cyberwar. The US Cyber Command became operational in November. Nato has enshrined cyber security among its new strategic priorities. The head of Britain’s armed forces said recently that boosting cyber capability is now a huge priority for the UK. And we know China is already engaged in broad cyber espionage attacks against the west. So how can we control a burgeoning cyber arms race?

We may already have seen early versions of cyberwars in Estonia and Georgia, possibly perpetrated by Russia. It’s hard to know for certain, not only because such attacks are often impossible to trace, but because we have no clear definitions of what a cyberwar actually is…

Why the TSA Can't Back Down

  • Bruce Schneier
  • The Atlantic
  • December 2, 2010

Organizers of National Opt Out Day, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving when air travelers were urged to opt out of the full-body scanners at security checkpoints and instead submit to full-body patdowns — were outfoxed by the TSA. The government pre-empted the protest by turning off the machines in most airports during the Thanksgiving weekend. Everyone went through the metal detectors, just as before.

Now that Thanksgiving is over, the machines are back on and the “enhanced” pat-downs have resumed. I suspect that more people would prefer to have naked images of themselves seen by TSA agents in another room, than have themselves intimately touched by a TSA agent right in front of them…

Close the Washington Monument

  • Bruce Schneier
  • New York Daily News
  • December 2, 2010

A heavily edited version of this essay appeared in the New York Daily News.

Securing the Washington Monument from terrorism has turned out to be a surprisingly difficult job. The concrete fence around the building protects it from attacking vehicles, but there’s no visually appealing way to house the airport-level security mechanisms the National Park Service has decided are a must for visitors. It is considering several options, but I think we should close the monument entirely. Let it stand, empty and inaccessible, as a monument to our fears…

A Waste of Money and Time

  • Bruce Schneier
  • New York Times Room for Debate
  • November 23, 2010

A short history of airport security: We screen for guns and bombs, so the terrorists use box cutters. We confiscate box cutters and corkscrews, so they put explosives in their sneakers. We screen footwear, so they try to use liquids. We confiscate liquids, so they put PETN bombs in their underwear. We roll out full-body scanners, even though they wouldn’t have caught the Underwear Bomber, so they put a bomb in a printer cartridge. We ban printer cartridges over 16 ounces — the level of magical thinking here is amazing — and they’re going to do something else…

The Plan to Quarantine Infected Computers

Keeping infected computers at bay is great in theory, but there are all sorts of complicating factors to consider.

  • Bruce Schneier
  • Forbes
  • November 11, 2010

Last month Scott Charney of Microsoft proposed that infected computers be quarantined from the Internet. Using a public health model for Internet security, the idea is that infected computers spreading worms and viruses are a risk to the greater community and thus need to be isolated. Internet service providers would administer the quarantine, and would also clean up and update users’ computers so they could rejoin the greater Internet.

This isn’t a new idea. Already there are products that test computers trying to join private networks, and only allow them access if their security patches are up-to-date and their antivirus software certifies them as clean. Computers denied access are sometimes shunned to a limited-capability sub-network where all they can do is download and install the updates they need to regain access. This sort of system has been used with great success at universities and end-user-device-friendly corporate networks. They’re happy to let you log in with any device you want–this is the consumerization trend in action–as long as your security is up to snuff…

When to Change Passwords

  • Bruce Schneier
  • Dark Reading
  • November 10, 2010

How often should you change your password? I get asked that question a lot, usually by people annoyed at their employer’s or bank’s password expiration policy — people who finally memorized their current password and are realizing they’ll have to write down their new one. How could that possibly be more secure, they want to know.

The answer depends on what the password is used for.

The downside of changing passwords is that it makes them harder to remember. And if you force people to change their passwords regularly, they’re more likely to choose easy-to-remember — and easy-to-guess — passwords than they are if they can use the same passwords for many years. So any password-changing policy needs to be chosen with that consideration in mind…

The Difficulty of Surveillance Crowdsourcing

  • Bruce Schneier
  • Threatpost
  • November 8, 2010

Internet Eyes is a U.K. startup designed to crowdsource digital surveillance. People pay a small fee to become a “Viewer.” Once they do, they can log onto the site and view live anonymous feeds from surveillance cameras at retail stores.  If they notice someone shoplifting, they can alert the store owner. Viewers get rated on their ability to differentiate real shoplifting from false alarms, can win 1000 pounds if they detect the most shoplifting in some time interval, and otherwise get paid a wage that most likely won’t cover their initial fee…

The Dangers of a Software Monoculture

  • Bruce Schneier
  • Information Security
  • November 2010

This essay appeared as the first half of a point-counterpoint with Marcus Ranum. Marcus’s half is here.

In 2003, a group of security experts — myself included — published a paper saying that 1) software monocultures are dangerous and 2) Microsoft, being the largest creator of monocultures out there, is the most dangerous. Marcus Ranum responded with an essay that basically said we were full of it. Now, eight years later, Marcus and I thought it would be interesting to revisit the debate.

The basic problem with a monoculture is that it’s all vulnerable to the same attack. The Irish Potato Famine of 1845–9 is perhaps the most famous monoculture-related disaster. The Irish planted only one variety of potato, and the genetically identical potatoes succumbed to a rot caused by Phytophthora infestans. Compare that with the diversity of potatoes traditionally grown in South America, each one adapted to the particular soil and climate of its home, and you can see the security value in heterogeneity…

The Story Behind The Stuxnet Virus

  • Bruce Schneier
  • Forbes
  • October 7, 2010

Computer security experts are often surprised at which stories get picked up by the mainstream media. Sometimes it makes no sense. Why this particular data breach, vulnerability, or worm and not others? Sometimes it’s obvious. In the case of Stuxnet, there’s a great story.

As the story goes, the Stuxnet worm was designed and released by a government–the U.S. and Israel are the most common suspects–specifically to attack the Bushehr nuclear power plant in Iran. How could anyone not report that? It combines computer attacks, nuclear power, spy agencies and a country that’s a pariah to much of the world. The only problem with the story is that it’s almost entirely speculation…

Web Snooping Is a Dangerous Move

  • Bruce Schneier
  • CNN
  • September 29, 2010

On Monday, The New York Times reported that President Obama will seek sweeping laws enabling law enforcement to more easily eavesdrop on the internet. Technologies are changing, the administration argues, and modern digital systems aren’t as easy to monitor as traditional telephones.

The government wants to force companies to redesign their communications systems and information networks to facilitate surveillance, and to provide law enforcement with back doors that enable them to bypass any security measures.

The proposal may seem extreme, but — unfortunately — it’s not unique. Just a few months ago, the governments of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia threatened to ban BlackBerry devices unless the company made eavesdropping easier. China has already built a massive internet surveillance system to better control its citizens…

Should Enterprises Give In to IT Consumerization at the Expense of Security?

  • Bruce Schneier
  • Information Security
  • September 2010

This essay appeared as the second half of a point/counterpoint with Marcus Ranum.

If you’re a typical wired American, you’ve got a bunch of tech tools you like and a bunch more you covet. You have a cell phone that can easily text. You’ve got a laptop configured just the way you want it. Maybe you have a Kindle for reading, or an iPad. And when the next new thing comes along, some of you will line up on the first day it’s available.

So why can’t work keep up? Why are you forced to use an unfamiliar, and sometimes outdated, operating system? Why do you need a second laptop, maybe an older and clunkier one? Why do you need a second cell phone with a new interface, or a BlackBerry, when your phone already does e-mail? Or a second BlackBerry tied to corporate e-mail? Why can’t you use the cool stuff you already have?…

Data Privacy: The Facts of Life

  • Bruce Schneier
  • The Irish Times
  • August 27, 2010

As networking sites become more ubiquitous, it is long past the time to look at the types of data we put on those sites. We’re using social networking websites for more private and more intimate interactions, often without thinking through the privacy implications of what we’re doing.

The issues are hard and the solutions to them harder still, 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.

To start that conversation, here is my taxonomy of social networking data…

3 Reasons to Kill the Internet Kill Switch Idea

  • Bruce Schneier
  • AOL News
  • July 9, 2010

Last month, Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., introduced a bill that might — we’re not really sure — give the president the authority to shut down all or portions of the Internet in the event of an emergency. It’s not a new idea. Sens. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, proposed the same thing last year, and some argue that the president can already do something like this. If this or a similar bill ever passes, the details will change considerably and repeatedly. So let’s talk about the idea of an Internet kill switch in general…

Threat of "Cyberwar" Has Been Hugely Hyped

  • Bruce Schneier
  • CNN
  • July 7, 2010

There’s a power struggle going on in the U.S. government right now.

It’s about who is in charge of cyber security, and how much control the government will exert over civilian networks. And by beating the drums of war, the military is coming out on top.

“The United States is fighting a cyberwar today, and we are losing,” said former NSA director — and current cyberwar contractor — Mike McConnell. “Cyber 9/11 has happened over the last ten years, but it happened slowly so we don’t see it,” said former National Cyber Security Division director Amit Yoran. Richard Clarke, whom Yoran replaced, wrote an entire …

A Taxonomy of Social Networking Data

  • Bruce Schneier
  • IEEE Security & Privacy
  • July/August 2010

Portuguese translation

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…

The Failure of Cryptography to Secure Modern Networks

  • Bruce Schneier
  • Dark Reading
  • June 30, 2010

For a while now, I’ve pointed out that cryptography is singularly ill-suited to solve the major network security problems of today: denial-of-service attacks, website defacement, theft of credit card numbers, identity theft, viruses and worms, DNS attacks, network penetration, and so on.

Cryptography was invented to protect communications: data in motion. This is how cryptography was used throughout most of history, and this is how the militaries of the world developed the science. Alice was the sender, Bob the receiver, and Eve the eavesdropper. Even when cryptography was used to protect stored data — data at rest — it was viewed as a form of communication. In “Applied Cryptography,” I described encrypting stored data in this way: “a stored message is a way for someone to communicate with himself through time.” Data storage was just a subset of data communication…

Weighing the Risk of Hiring Hackers

  • Bruce Schneier
  • Information Security
  • June 2010

This essay previously appeared in Information Security as the first half of a point-counterpoint with Marcus Ranum. Marcus’s half is here.

Any essay on hiring hackers quickly gets bogged down in definitions. What is a hacker, and how is he different from a cracker? I have my own definitions, but I’d rather define the issue more specifically: Would you hire someone convicted of a computer crime to fill a position of trust in your computer network? Or, more generally, would you hire someone convicted of a crime for a job related to that crime?…

Worst-Case Thinking Makes Us Nuts, Not Safe

  • Bruce Schneier
  • CNN
  • May 12, 2010

At a security conference recently, the moderator asked the panel of distinguished cybersecurity leaders what their nightmare scenario was. The answers were the predictable array of large-scale attacks: against our communications infrastructure, against the power grid, against the financial system, in combination with a physical attack.

I didn’t get to give my answer until the afternoon, which was: “My nightmare scenario is that people keep talking about their nightmare scenarios.”

There’s a certain blindness that comes from worst-case thinking. An extension of the …

The Internet: Anonymous Forever

  • Bruce Schneier
  • Forbes
  • May 12, 2010

This essay previously appeared in Information Security as the first half of a point-counterpoint with Marcus Ranum. Marcus’s half is here.

Universal identification is portrayed by some as the holy grail of Internet security. Anonymity is bad, the argument goes; and if we abolish it, we can ensure only the proper people have access to their own information. We’ll know who is sending us spam and who is trying to hack into corporate networks. And when there are massive denial-of-service attacks, such as those against Estonia or Georgia or South Korea, we’ll know who was responsible and take action accordingly…

Where Are All the Terrorist Attacks?

  • Bruce Schneier
  • AOL News
  • May 4, 2010

As the details of the Times Square car bomb attempt emerge in the wake of Faisal Shahzad’s arrest Monday night, one thing has already been made clear: Terrorism is fairly easy. All you need is a gun or a bomb, and a crowded target. Guns are easy to buy. Bombs are easy to make. Crowded targets — not only in New York, but all over the country — are easy to come by. If you’re willing to die in the aftermath of your attack, you could launch a pretty effective terrorist attack with a few days of planning, maybe less.

But if it’s so easy, why aren’t there more terrorist attacks like the failed car bomb in New York’s Times Square? Or the terrorist shootings in Mumbai? Or the Moscow subway bombings? After the enormous horror and tragedy of 9/11, why have the past eight years been so safe in the U.S.?…

Focus on the Threat

  • Bruce Schneier
  • New York Times Room for Debate
  • May 3, 2010

In the wake of Saturday’s failed Times Square car bombing, it’s natural to ask how we can prevent this sort of thing from happening again. The answer is stop focusing on the specifics of what actually happened, and instead think about the threat in general.

Think about the security measures commonly proposed. Cameras won’t help. They don’t prevent terrorist attacks, and their forensic value after the fact is minimal. In the Times Square case, surely there’s enough other evidence — the car’s identification number, the auto body shop the stolen license plates came from, the name of the fertilizer store — to identify the guy. We will almost certainly not need the camera footage. The images released so far, like the images in so many other terrorist attacks, may make for exciting television, but their value to law enforcement officers is limited…

The Meaning of Trust

Security technologist and author Bruce Schneier looks at the age-old problem of insider threat

  • Bruce Schneier
  • The Guardian
  • April 16, 2010

Rajendrasinh Makwana was a UNIX contractor for Fannie Mae. On October 24, he was fired. Before he left, he slipped a logic bomb into the organisation’s network. The bomb would have “detonated” on January 31. It was programmed to disable access to the server on which it was running, block any network monitoring software, systematically and irretrievably erase everything, and then replicate itself on all 4,000 Fannie Mae servers. Court papers claim the damage would have been in the millions of dollars.

Luckily, another programmer discovered the script a week later, and disabled it…

Scanners, Sensors are Wrong Way to Secure the Subway

We'll spend millions on new technology, and terrorists will just adapt

  • Bruce Schneier
  • New York Daily News
  • April 7, 2010

People intent on preventing a Moscow-style terrorist attack against the New York subway system are proposing a range of expensive new underground security measures, some temporary and some permanent.

They should save their money — and instead invest every penny they’re considering pouring into new technologies into intelligence and old-fashioned policing.

Intensifying security at specific stations only works against terrorists who aren’t smart enough to move to another station. Cameras are useful only if all the stars align: The terrorists happen to walk into the frame, the video feeds are being watched in real time and the police can respond quickly enough to be effective. They’re much more useful …

Google And Facebook's Privacy Illusion

These companies and others say privacy erosion is inevitable--but they're making it so.

  • Bruce Schneier
  • Forbes
  • April 6, 2010

In January Facebook Chief Executive, Mark Zuckerberg, declared the age of privacy to be over. A month earlier, Google Chief Eric Schmidt expressed a similar sentiment. Add Scott McNealy’s and Larry Ellison’s comments from a few years earlier, and you’ve got a whole lot of tech CEOs proclaiming the death of privacy–especially when it comes to young people.

It’s just not true. People, including the younger generation, still care about privacy. Yes, they’re far more public on the Internet than their parents: writing personal details on Facebook, posting embarrassing photos on Flickr and having intimate conversations on Twitter. But they take steps to protect their privacy and vociferously complain when they feel it violated. They’re not technically sophisticated about privacy and make mistakes all the time, but that’s mostly the fault of companies and Web sites that try to manipulate them for financial gain…

Should the Government Stop Outsourcing Code Development?

  • Bruce Schneier
  • Information Security
  • March 2010

This essay appeared as the second half of a point/counterpoint with Marcus Ranum. Marcus’s half is here.

French translation

Information technology is increasingly everywhere, and it’s the same technologies everywhere. The same operating systems are used in corporate and government computers. The same software controls critical infrastructure and home shopping. The same networking technologies are used in every country. The same digital infrastructure underpins the small and the large, the important and the trivial, the local and the global; the same vendors, the same standards, the same protocols, the same applications…

Spy Cameras Won't Make Us Safer

  • Bruce Schneier
  • CNN
  • February 25, 2010

On January 19, a team of at least 15 people assassinated Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh. The Dubai police released video footage of 11 of them. While it was obviously a very professional operation, the 27 minutes of video is fascinating in its banality. Team members walk through the airport, check in and out of hotels, get in and out of taxis. They make no effort to hide themselves from the cameras, sometimes seeming to stare directly into them. They obviously don’t care that they’re being recorded, and — in fact — the cameras didn’t prevent the assassination, nor as far as we know have they helped as yet in identifying the killers…

U.S. Enables Chinese Hacking of Google

  • Bruce Schneier
  • CNN
  • January 23, 2010

Google made headlines when it went public with the fact that Chinese hackers had penetrated some of its services, such as Gmail, in a politically motivated attempt at intelligence gathering. The news here isn’t that Chinese hackers engage in these activities or that their attempts are technically sophisticated — we knew that already — it’s that the U.S. government inadvertently aided the hackers.

In order to comply with government search warrants on user data, Google created a backdoor access system into Gmail accounts. This feature is what the Chinese hackers exploited to gain access…

Fixing Intelligence Failures

  • Bruce Schneier
  • San Francisco Chronicle
  • January 15, 2010

President Obama in his speech last week rightly focused on fixing the intelligence failures that resulted in Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab being ignored, rather than on technologies targeted at the details of his underwear-bomb plot. But while Obama’s instincts are right, reforming intelligence for this new century and its new threats is a more difficult task than he might like.

We don’t need new technologies, new laws, new bureaucratic overlords, or – for heaven’s sake – new agencies. What prevents information sharing among intelligence organizations is the culture of the generation that built those organizations…

Stop the Panic on Air Security

  • Bruce Schneier
  • CNN
  • January 7, 2010

The Underwear Bomber failed. And our reaction to the failed plot is failing as well, by focusing on the specifics of this made-for-a-movie plot rather than the broad threat. While our reaction is predictable, it’s not going to make us safer.

We’re going to beef up airport security, because Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab allegedly snuck a bomb through a security checkpoint. We’re going to intensively screen Nigerians, because he is Nigerian. We’re going to field full body scanners, because they might have noticed the PETN that authorities say was hidden in his underwear. And so on…

Our Reaction Is the Real Security Failure

  • Bruce Schneier
  • AOL News
  • January 7, 2010

In the headlong rush to “fix” security after the Underwear Bomber’s unsuccessful Christmas Day attack, there’s far too little discussion about what worked and what didn’t, and what will and will not make us safer in the future.

The security checkpoints worked. Because we screen for obvious bombs, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab — or, more precisely, whoever built the bomb — had to construct a far less reliable bomb than he would have otherwise. Instead of using a timer or a plunger or a reliable detonation mechanism, as would any commercial user of PETN, he had to resort to an ad hoc and much more inefficient homebrew mechanism: one involving a syringe and 20 minutes in the lavatory and we don’t know exactly what else. And it didn’t work…

Fixing a Security Problem Isn't Always the Right Answer

  • Bruce Schneier
  • Threatpost
  • January 5, 2010

An unidentified man breached airport security at Newark Airport on Sunday, walking into the secured area through the exit, prompting an evacuation of a terminal and flight delays that continued into the next day. This problem isn’t common, but it happens regularly. The result is always the same, and it’s not obvious that fixing the problem is the right solution.

This kind of security breach is inevitable, simply because human guards are not perfect.  Sometimes it’s someone going in through the out door, unnoticed by a bored guard. Sometimes it’s someone running through the checkpoint and getting lost in the crowd. Sometimes it’s an open door that should be locked. Amazing as it seems to frequent fliers, the perpetrator often doesn’t even know he did anything wrong…

Profiling Makes Us Less Safe

  • Bruce Schneier
  • New York Times Room for Debate
  • January 4, 2010

There are two kinds of profiling. There’s behavioral profiling based on how someone acts, and there’s automatic profiling based on name, nationality, method of ticket purchase, and so on. The first one can be effective, but is very hard to do right. The second one makes us all less safe. The problem with automatic profiling is that it doesn’t work.

Terrorists don’t fit a profile and cannot be plucked out of crowds by computers. They’re European, Asian, African, Hispanic, and Middle Eastern, male and female, young and old. Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab was Nigerian. Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, was British with a Jamaican father. Germaine Lindsay, one of the 7/7 London bombers, was Afro-Caribbean. Dirty bomb suspect Jose Padilla was Hispanic-American. The 2002 Bali terrorists were Indonesian. Timothy McVeigh was a white American. So was the Unabomber. The Chechen terrorists who blew up two Russian planes in 2004 were female. Palestinian terrorists routinely recruit “clean” suicide bombers, and have used unsuspecting Westerners as bomb carriers…

Security and Function Creep

  • Bruce Schneier
  • IEEE Security & Privacy
  • January/February 2010

Security is rarely static. Technology changes the capabilities of both security systems and attackers. But there’s something else that changes security’s cost/benefit trade-off: how the underlying systems being secured are used. Far too often we build security for one purpose, only to find it being used for another purpose — one it wasn’t suited for in the first place. And then the security system has to play catch-up.

Take driver’s licenses, for example. Originally designed to demonstrate a credential — the ability to drive a car — they looked like other credentials: medical licenses or elevator certificates of inspection. They were wallet-sized, of course, but they didn’t have much security associated with them. Then, slowly, driver’s licenses took on a second application: they became age-verification tokens in bars and liquor stores. Of course the security wasn’t up to the task — teenagers can be extraordinarily resourceful if they set their minds to it — and over the decades driver’s licenses got photographs, tamper-resistant features (once, it was easy to modify the birth year), and technologies that made counterfeiting harder. There was little value in counterfeiting a driver’s license, but a lot of value in counterfeiting an age-verification token…

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.