Entries Tagged "risk assessment"

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What Happened to Cyber 9/11?

A recent article in the Atlantic asks why we haven’t seen a”cyber 9/11″ in the past fifteen or so years. (I, too, remember the increasingly frantic and fearful warnings of a “cyber Peal Harbor,” “cyber Katrina” — when that was a thing — or “cyber 9/11.” I made fun of those warnings back then.) The author’s answer:

Three main barriers are likely preventing this. For one, cyberattacks can lack the kind of drama and immediate physical carnage that terrorists seek. Identifying the specific perpetrator of a cyberattack can also be difficult, meaning terrorists might have trouble reaping the propaganda benefits of clear attribution. Finally, and most simply, it’s possible that they just can’t pull it off.

Commenting on the article, Rob Graham adds:

I think there are lots of warning from so-called “experts” who aren’t qualified to make such warnings, that the press errs on the side of giving such warnings credibility instead of challenging them.

I think mostly the reason why cyberterrorism doesn’t happen is that which motivates violent people is different than what which motivates technical people, pulling apart the groups who would want to commit cyberterrorism from those who can.

These are all good reasons, but I think both authors missed the most important one: there simply aren’t a lot of terrorists out there. Let’s ask the question more generally: why hasn’t there been another 9/11 since 2001? I also remember dire predictions that large-scale terrorism was the new normal, and that we would see 9/11-scale attacks regularly. But since then, nothing. We could credit the fantastic counterterrorism work of the US and other countries, but a more reasonable explanation is that there are very few terrorists and even fewer organized ones. Our fear of terrorism is far greater than the actual risk.

This isn’t to say that cyberterrorism can never happen. Of course it will, sooner or later. But I don’t foresee it becoming a preferred terrorism method anytime soon. Graham again:

In the end, if your goal is to cause major power blackouts, your best bet is to bomb power lines and distribution centers, rather than hack them.

Posted on November 19, 2018 at 6:50 AMView Comments

Terahertz Millimeter-Wave Scanners

Interesting article on terahertz millimeter-wave scanners and their uses to detect terrorist bombers.

The heart of the device is a block of electronics about the size of a 1990s tower personal computer. It comes housed in a musician’s black case, akin to the one Spinal Tap might use on tour. At the front: a large, square white plate, the terahertz camera and, just above it, an ordinary closed-circuit television (CCTV) camera. Mounted on a shelf inside the case is a laptop that displays the CCTV image and the blobby terahertz image side by side.

An operator compares the two images as people flow past, looking for unexplained dark areas that could represent firearms or suicide vests. Most images that might be mistaken for a weapon­ — backpacks or a big patch of sweat on the back of a person’s shirt­ — are easily evaluated by observing the terahertz image alongside an unaltered video picture of the passenger.

It is up to the operator­ — in LA’s case, presumably a transport police officer­ — to query people when dark areas on the terahertz image suggest concealed large weapons or suicide vests. The device cannot see inside bodies, backpacks or shoes. “If you look at previous incidents on public transit systems, this technology would have detected those,” Sotero says, noting LA Metro worked “closely” with the TSA for over a year to test this and other technologies. “It definitely has the backing of TSA.”

How the technology works in practice depends heavily on the operator’s training. According to Evans, “A lot of tradecraft goes into understanding where the threat item is likely to be on the body.” He sees the crucial role played by the operator as giving back control to security guards and allowing them to use their common sense.

I am quoted in the article as being skeptical of the technology, particularly how its deployed.

Posted on October 3, 2018 at 7:11 AMView Comments

John Mueller and Mark Stewart on the Risks of Terrorism

Another excellent paper by the Mueller/Stewart team: “Terrorism and Bathtubs: Comparing and Assessing the Risks“:

Abstract: The likelihood that anyone outside a war zone will be killed by an Islamist extremist terrorist is extremely small. In the United States, for example, some six people have perished each year since 9/11 at the hands of such terrorists — vastly smaller than the number of people who die in bathtub drownings. Some argue, however, that the incidence of terrorist destruction is low because counterterrorism measures are so effective. They also contend that terrorism may well become more frequent and destructive in the future as terrorists plot and plan and learn from experience, and that terrorism, unlike bathtubs, provides no benefit and exacts costs far beyond those in the event itself by damagingly sowing fear and anxiety and by requiring policy makers to adopt countermeasures that are costly and excessive. This paper finds these arguments to be wanting. In the process, it concludes that terrorism is rare outside war zones because, to a substantial degree, terrorists don’t exist there. In general, as with rare diseases that kill few, it makes more policy sense to expend limited funds on hazards that inflict far more damage. It also discusses the issue of risk communication for this hazard.

Posted on August 23, 2018 at 5:54 AMView Comments

Nicholas Weaver on Cryptocurrencies

This is well-worth reading (non-paywalled version). Here’s the opening:

Cryptocurrencies, although a seemingly interesting idea, are simply not fit for purpose. They do not work as currencies, they are grossly inefficient, and they are not meaningfully distributed in terms of trust. Risks involving cryptocurrencies occur in four major areas: technical risks to participants, economic risks to participants, systemic risks to the cryptocurrency ecosystem, and societal risks.

I haven’t written much about cryptocurrencies, but I share Weaver’s skepticism.

EDITED TO ADD (8/2): Paul Krugman on cryptocurrencies.

Posted on July 24, 2018 at 6:29 AMView Comments

How the Media Influences Our Fear of Terrorism

Good article that crunches the data and shows that the press’s coverage of terrorism is disproportional to its comparative risk.

This isn’t new. I’ve written about it before, and wrote about it more generally when I wrote about the psychology of risk, fear, and security. Basically, the issue is the availability heuristic. We tend to infer the probability of something by how easy it is to bring examples of the thing to mind. So if we can think of a lot of tiger attacks in our community, we infer that the risk is high. If we can’t think of many lion attacks, we infer that the risk is low. But while this is a perfectly reasonable heuristic when living in small family groups in the East African highlands in 100,000 BC, it fails in the face of modern media. The media makes the rare seem more common by spending a lot of time talking about it. It’s not the media’s fault. By definition, news is “something that hardly ever happens.” But when the coverage of terrorist deaths exceeds the coverage of homicides, we have a tendency to mistakenly inflate the risk of the former while discount the risk of the latter.

Our brains aren’t very good at probability and risk analysis. We tend to exaggerate spectacular, strange and rare events, and downplay ordinary, familiar and common ones. We think rare risks are more common than they are. We fear them more than probability indicates we should.

There is a lot of psychological research that tries to explain this, but one of the key findings is this: People tend to base risk analysis more on stories than on data. Stories engage us at a much more visceral level, especially stories that are vivid, exciting or personally involving.

If a friend tells you about getting mugged in a foreign country, that story is more likely to affect how safe you feel traveling to that country than reading a page of abstract crime statistics will.

Novelty plus dread plus a good story equals overreaction.

It’s not just murders. It’s flying vs. driving: the former is much safer, but accidents are so more spectacular when they occur.

Posted on January 24, 2017 at 6:31 AMView Comments

Confusing Security Risks with Moral Judgments

Interesting research that shows we exaggerate the risks of something when we find it morally objectionable.

From an article about and interview with the researchers:

To get at this question experimentally, Thomas and her collaborators created a series of vignettes in which a parent left a child unattended for some period of time, and participants indicated the risk of harm to the child during that period. For example, in one vignette, a 10-month-old was left alone for 15 minutes, asleep in the car in a cool, underground parking garage. In another vignette, an 8-year-old was left for an hour at a Starbucks, one block away from her parent’s location.

To experimentally manipulate participants’ moral attitude toward the parent, the experimenters varied the reason the child was left unattended across a set of six experiments with over 1,300 online participants. In some cases, the child was left alone unintentionally (for example, in one case, a mother is hit by a car and knocked unconscious after buckling her child into her car seat, thereby leaving the child unattended in the car seat). In other cases, the child was left unattended so the parent could go to work, do some volunteering, relax or meet a lover.

Not surprisingly, the parent’s reason for leaving a child unattended affected participants’ judgments of whether the parent had done something immoral: Ratings were over 3 on a 10-point scale even when the child was left unattended unintentionally, but they skyrocketed to nearly 8 when the parent left to meet a lover. Ratings for the other cases fell in between.

The more surprising result was that perceptions of risk followed precisely the same pattern. Although the details of the cases were otherwise the same -­ that is, the age of the child, the duration and location of the unattended period, and so on -­ participants thought children were in significantly greater danger when the parent left to meet a lover than when the child was left alone unintentionally. The ratings for the other cases, once again, fell in between. In other words, participants’ factual judgments of how much danger the child was in while the parent was away varied according to the extent of their moral outrage concerning the parent’s reason for leaving.

Posted on August 25, 2016 at 11:12 AMView Comments

Report on the Vulnerabilities Equities Process

I have written before on the vulnerabilities equities process (VEP): the system by which the US government decides whether to disclose and fix a computer vulnerability or keep it secret and use it offensively. Ari Schwartz and Rob Knake, both former Directors for Cybersecurity Policy at the White House National Security Council, have written a report describing the process as we know it, with policy recommendations for improving it.

Basically, their recommendations are focused on improving the transparency, oversight, and accountability (three things I repeatedly recommend) of the process. In summary:

  • The President should issue an Executive Order mandating government-wide compliance with the VEP.
  • Make the general criteria used to decide whether or not to disclose a vulnerability public.
  • Clearly define the VEP.
  • Make sure any undisclosed vulnerabilities are reviewed periodically.
  • Ensure that the government has the right to disclose any vulnerabilities it purchases.
  • Transfer oversight of the VEP from the NSA to the DHS.
  • Issue an annual report on the VEP.
  • Expand Congressional oversight of the VEP.
  • Mandate oversight by other independent bodies inside the Executive Branch.
  • Expand funding for both offensive and defensive vulnerability research.

These all seem like good ideas to me. This is a complex issue, one I wrote about in Data and Goliath (pages 146-50), and one that’s only going to get more important in the Internet of Things.

News article.

Posted on July 11, 2016 at 12:15 PMView Comments

Financial Cyber Risk Is Not Systemic Risk

This interesting essay argues that financial risks are generally not systemic risks, and instead are generally much smaller. That’s certainly been our experience to date:

While systemic risk is frequently invoked as a key reason to be on guard for cyber risk, such a connection is quite tenuous. A cyber event might in extreme cases result in a systemic crisis, but to do so needs highly fortuitous timing.

From the point of view of policymaking, rather than simply asserting systemic consequences for cyber risks, it would be better if the cyber discussion were better integrated into the existing macroprudential dialogue. To us, the overall discussion of cyber and systemic risk seems to be too focused on IT considerations and not enough on economic consequences.

After all, if there are systemic consequences from cyber risk, the chain of causality will be found in the macroprudential domain.

Posted on June 10, 2016 at 12:56 PMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.