Complexity the Worst Enemy of Security

Computerworld Hong Kong (CWHK): Are we actually any more secure today than we were five years ago?

Bruce Schneier (BS): In short, no. It’s interesting that every year we have new technologies, new products, new ideas, companies and research, yet people continue to ask why things are so bad with security? And the answer is that fundamentally the problem is complexity.

The Internet and all the systems we build today are getting more complex at a rate that is faster than we are capable of matching. So while security in reality is actually improving but the target is constantly shifting and as complexity grows, we are losing ground.

CWHK: And is this the reality that we have to accept today and for the foreseeable future?

BS: I’m sure that this isn’t the answer that many would want to hear but yes this is the reality today. I’m sure that out there somewhere is a point where the complexity slows down and we find a way to gain back some ground. But it’s hard to envisage as there is so much change and it’s happening so fast that every new thing brings added complexity. And complexity is the worst enemy of security.

CWHK: So how do we reconcile the irony that complexity is something we desire?

BS: The thing is we absolutely love complexity. It’s down to using these new apps on our smartphones, it’s using Skype on our work device while using the airport WiFi. We all like these things and having access to our data at all times, but this creates more complexity and it makes security harder.

There’s no way I would advise anyone to stop doing these things so we just have to find ways to live with this.

If you look back to five years ago, we were all discussing how to lock down all our access points to the enterprise. Today all the data resides outside the network, so who cares about where the access points are today? That’s the ongoing evolution we have to accept and deal with.

CWHK: So do we have to constantly redefine the meaning of security?

BS: We do that almost on a daily basis anyway. In the real world we do this, as security is a very much a local construct. What it means to be secure in Hong Kong is very different to say Manila or downtown Kabul. We as humans are very good at adapting to scenarios to create a new sense of normal.

Intuitively humans can do this when walking down a street and perceive if it is a good neighborhood and you adjust accordingly. But you then go to the Internet and you take my father who has little understanding of the Internet, he will have a very different security posture on the web versus a teenager who has a very intuitive feel about being on the Internet.

CWHK: So with the younger generation today seemingly more trusting in their behavior online, does that make them inherently less secure?

BS: Certainly today’s generation seem to be more trusting but I think it’s not that they trust more, I think they simply care less. The things that may freak me or you out may not necessarily bother them. But that doesn’t mean they are less secure as a result—they just have different rules. Again these are all social constructs which each person creates for themselves.

CWHK: So for CIOs today the new generation should not pose any new security risks?

BS: Just because they care less does not mean they will be less secure. While young people on the Internet do act very differently to past generations, I have found them to be very sensitive to privacy. They probably do a lot of things that we might not even consider to preserve our privacy.

Historically we are used to the model where keeping something private was cheap and it was the default way of doing things. To make something public was expensive and not easy as you needed a media of some sort to spread the message. Today that’s reversed.

Today making something public is the norm and it’s cheap—keeping things private is expensive and difficult. Young people are accustomed to living their lives in public and it’s normal to be constantly scrutinized. You get dumped on Twitter twice and you soon don’t feel so bad about it. For me and you it’s likely a horrible prospect.

CWHK: What is creating the greatest complexity today and therefore causing greatest security headaches?

BS: So today I see two key things happening and both involve loss of control—first around the devices and end-points we use, second it’s around control of data. With devices today, the user has much less control over the devices we use. You can’t buy a firewall for your iPhone, or buy software that will help securely erase data from an iPhone or a Windows Phone.

These systems are all closed, where updates and new software upgrades happen automatically without your input.

We can lose these devices and at the push of a button have everything appear like magic back on the new device. The downside is that there is a lot less security under my control and I have to trust the device makers and the software providers to ensure this is all protected.

Then there is the data. All data is increasingly moving to the cloud with Google, Facebook, Linkedin, you now have address books, documents and images all on the cloud. We have no visibility or control over how this data is being managed, processed, stored or manipulated. We don’t know what OS Facebook is using or what they have in place to secure their system—and in reality we don’t care.

CWHK: So is losing control good or bad here?

BS: In losing control, we simply have to trust Apple and Facebook and many others to be responsible and protect our data. My mother used to go home and clear out all her spam, run her AV and firewalls to clean out her system. But today while we have lost control over these things, in many ways we are more secure. We trust Apple to secure our iPads, we trust Samsung to secure our phones.

So loss of control in many cases does not mean being less secure. But this also depends on who you are. So for those that like control and have the capability to manage many of these security issues—such as myself—we hate this loss. I’m still using Eudora mail, there is no better or more secure email program in my opinion. But this is rare and I’ll admit I’m a true exception to the norm.

CWHK: So trust is the key issue today and the challenge is who we trust to have this control?

BS: People do in most cases have to get over this sense of losing control. And in security it’s something we argued for when I was managing Counterpane to help businesses improve their security monitoring. We would have customers racked with uncertainty and asking if this was the right thing to do. To which we replied with the observation that they were doing such a bad job themselves anyway, there was no way of not improving things for them.

So the question today is not: Is my data secure in the cloud? The question should be: Is my data more secure with you than it is with me?

Categories: Text, Written Interviews

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.