Entries Tagged "whitelisting"

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Dan Geer Explains the Government Surveillance Mentality

This talk by Dan Geer explains the NSA mindset of “collect everything”:

I previously worked for a data protection company. Our product was, and I believe still is, the most thorough on the market. By “thorough” I mean the dictionary definition, “careful about doing something in an accurate and exact way.” To this end, installing our product instrumented every system call on the target machine. Data did not and could not move in any sense of the word “move” without detection. Every data operation was caught and monitored. It was total surveillance data protection. Its customers were companies that don’t accept half-measures. What made this product stick out was that very thoroughness, but here is the point: Unless you fully instrument your data handling, it is not possible for you to say what did not happen. With total surveillance, and total surveillance alone, it is possible to treat the absence of evidence as the evidence of absence. Only when you know everything that *did* happen with your data can you say what did *not* happen with your data.

The alternative to total surveillance of data handling is to answer more narrow questions, questions like “Can the user steal data with a USB stick?” or “Does this outbound e-mail have a Social Security Number in it?” Answering direct questions is exactly what a defensive mindset says you must do, and that is “never make the same mistake twice.” In other words, if someone has lost data because of misuse of some facility on the computer, then you either disable that facility or you wrap it in some kind of perimeter. Lather, rinse, and repeat. This extends all the way to such trivial matters as timer-based screen locking.

The difficulty with the defensive mindset is that it leaves in place the fundamental strategic asymmetry of cybersecurity, namely that while the workfactor for the offender is the price of finding a new method of attack, the workfactor for the defender is the cumulative cost of forever defending against all attack methods yet discovered. Over time, the curve for the cost of finding a new attack and the curve for the cost of defending against all attacks to date cross. Once those curves cross, the offender never has to worry about being out of the money. I believe that that crossing occurred some time ago.

The total surveillance strategy is, to my mind, an offensive strategy used for defensive purposes. It says “I don’t know what the opposition is going to try, so everything is forbidden unless we know it is good.” In that sense, it is like whitelisting applications. Taking either the application whitelisting or the total data surveillance approach is saying “That which is not permitted is forbidden.”

[…]

We all know the truism, that knowledge is power. We all know that there is a subtle yet important distinction between information and knowledge. We all know that a negative declaration like “X did not happen” can only proven true if you have the enumeration of *everything* that did happen and can show that X is not in it. We all know that when a President says “Never again” he is asking for the kind of outcome for which proving a negative, lots of negatives, is categorically essential. Proving a negative requires omniscience. Omniscience requires god-like powers.

The whole essay is well worth reading.

Posted on November 11, 2013 at 6:21 AMView Comments

Whitelisting vs. Blacklisting

The whitelist/blacklist debate is far older than computers, and it’s instructive to recall what works where. Physical security works generally on a whitelist model: if you have a key, you can open the door; if you know the combination, you can open the lock. We do it this way not because it’s easier — although it is generally much easier to make a list of people who should be allowed through your office door than a list of people who shouldn’t–but because it’s a security system that can be implemented automatically, without people.

To find blacklists in the real world, you have to start looking at environments where almost everyone is allowed. Casinos are a good example: everyone can come in and gamble except those few specifically listed in the casino’s black book or the more general Griffin book. Some retail stores have the same model — a Google search on “banned from Wal-Mart” results in 1.5 million hits, including Megan Fox — although you have to wonder about enforcement. Does Wal-Mart have the same sort of security manpower as casinos?

National borders certainly have that kind of manpower, and Marcus is correct to point to passport control as a system with both a whitelist and a blacklist. There are people who are allowed in with minimal fuss, people who are summarily arrested with as minimal a fuss as possible, and people in the middle who receive some amount of fussing. Airport security works the same way: the no-fly list is a blacklist, and people with redress numbers are on the whitelist.

Computer networks share characteristics with your office and Wal-Mart: sometimes you only want a few people to have access, and sometimes you want almost everybody to have access. And you see whitelists and blacklists at work in computer networks. Access control is whitelisting: if you know the password, or have the token or biometric, you get access. Antivirus is blacklisting: everything coming into your computer from the Internet is assumed to be safe unless it appears on a list of bad stuff. On computers, unlike the real world, it takes no extra manpower to implement a blacklist — the software can do it largely for free.

Traditionally, execution control has been based on a blacklist. Computers are so complicated and applications so varied that it just doesn’t make sense to limit users to a specific set of applications. The exception is constrained environments, such as computers in hotel lobbies and airline club lounges. On those, you’re often limited to an Internet browser and a few common business applications.

Lately, we’re seeing more whitelisting on closed computing platforms. The iPhone works on a whitelist: if you want a program to run on the phone, you need to get it approved by Apple and put in the iPhone store. Your Wii game machine works the same way. This is done primarily because the manufacturers want to control the economic environment, but it’s being sold partly as a security measure. But in this case, more security equals less liberty; do you really want your computing options limited by Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, or whoever controls the particular system you’re using?

Turns out that many people do. Apple’s control over its apps hasn’t seemed to hurt iPhone sales, and Facebook’s control over its apps hasn’t seemed to affect Facebook’s user numbers. And honestly, quite a few of us would have had an easier time over the Christmas holidays if we could have implemented a whitelist on the computers of our less-technical relatives.

For these two reasons, I think the whitelist model will continue to make inroads into our general purpose computers. And those of us who want control over our own environments will fight back — perhaps with a whitelist we maintain personally, but more probably with a blacklist.

This essay previously appeared in Information Security as the first half of a point-counterpoint with Marcus Ranum. You can read Marcus’s half there as well.

Posted on January 28, 2011 at 5:02 AMView Comments

Is Antivirus Dead?

This essay previously appeared in Information Security Magazine, as the second half of a point-counterpoint with Marcus Ranum. You can read his half here as well.

Security is never black and white. If someone asks, “for best security, should I do A or B?” the answer almost invariably is both. But security is always a trade-off. Often it’s impossible to do both A and B — there’s no time to do both, it’s too expensive to do both, or whatever — and you have to choose. In that case, you look at A and B and you make you best choice. But it’s almost always more secure to do both.

Yes, antivirus programs have been getting less effective as new viruses are more frequent and existing viruses mutate faster. Yes, antivirus companies are forever playing catch-up, trying to create signatures for new viruses. Yes, signature-based antivirus software won’t protect you when a virus is new, before the signature is added to the detection program. Antivirus is by no means a panacea.

On the other hand, an antivirus program with up-to-date signatures will protect you from a lot of threats. It’ll protect you against viruses, against spyware, against Trojans — against all sorts of malware. It’ll run in the background, automatically, and you won’t notice any performance degradation at all. And — here’s the best part — it can be free. AVG won’t cost you a penny. To me, this is an easy trade-off, certainly for the average computer user who clicks on attachments he probably shouldn’t click on, downloads things he probably shouldn’t download, and doesn’t understand the finer workings of Windows Personal Firewall.

Certainly security would be improved if people used whitelisting programs such as Bit9 Parity and Savant Protection — and I personally recommend Malwarebytes’ Anti-Malware — but a lot of users are going to have trouble with this. The average user will probably just swat away the “you’re trying to run a program not on your whitelist” warning message or — even worse — wonder why his computer is broken when he tries to run a new piece of software. The average corporate IT department doesn’t have a good idea of what software is running on all the computers within the corporation, and doesn’t want the administrative overhead of managing all the change requests. And whitelists aren’t a panacea, either: they don’t defend against malware that attaches itself to data files (think Word macro viruses), for example.

One of the newest trends in IT is consumerization, and if you don’t already know about it, you soon will. It’s the idea that new technologies, the cool stuff people want, will become available for the consumer market before they become available for the business market. What it means to business is that people — employees, customers, partners — will access business networks from wherever they happen to be, with whatever hardware and software they have. Maybe it’ll be the computer you gave them when you hired them. Maybe it’ll be their home computer, the one their kids use. Maybe it’ll be their cell phone or PDA, or a computer in a hotel’s business center. Your business will have no way to know what they’re using, and — more importantly — you’ll have no control.

In this kind of environment, computers are going to connect to each other without a whole lot of trust between them. Untrusted computers are going to connect to untrusted networks. Trusted computers are going to connect to untrusted networks. The whole idea of “safe computing” is going to take on a whole new meaning — every man for himself. A corporate network is going to need a simple, dumb, signature-based antivirus product at the gateway of its network. And a user is going to need a similar program to protect his computer.

Bottom line: antivirus software is neither necessary nor sufficient for security, but it’s still a good idea. It’s not a panacea that magically makes you safe, nor is it is obsolete in the face of current threats. As countermeasures go, it’s cheap, it’s easy, and it’s effective. I haven’t dumped my antivirus program, and I have no intention of doing so anytime soon.

Posted on November 10, 2009 at 6:31 AMView Comments

Clear Shuts Down Operation

Clear, the company that sped people through airport security, has ceased operations. My first question: what happened to all that personal information it collected on its members? An answer appeared on its website:

Applicant and Member data is currently secured in accordance with the Transportation Security Administration’s Security, Privacy and Compliance Standards. Verified Identity Pass, Inc. will continue to secure such information and will take appropriate steps to delete the information.

Some are not reassured:

The disturbing part is that everyone who joined the Clear program had to give this private company (and the TSA) fingerprint and iris scans. I never joined Clear. But if I had, I would be extremely concerned about what happens to this information now that the company has gone defunct.

I can hear it now — they’ll surely say all the biometric and fingerprint data is secure, you don’t need to worry. But how much can you trust a company that shuts down with little notice while being hounded by creditors?

Details matter here. Nowhere do the articles say that Clear, or its parent company Verified Identity, Inc., have declared bankruptcy. But if that does happen, does the company’s biggest asset — the personal information of the quarter of a million Clear members — become the property of Clear’s creditors?

I previously wrote about Clear here.

More commentary.

Posted on June 25, 2009 at 12:36 PMView Comments

Second SHB Workshop Liveblogging (4)

Session three was titled “Usability.” (For the record, the Stata Center is one ugly building.)

Andrew Patrick, NRC Canada until he was laid off four days ago (suggested reading: Fingerprint Concerns: Performance, Usability, and Acceptance of Fingerprint Biometric Systems), talked about biometric systems and human behavior. Biometrics are used everywhere: for gym membership, at Disneyworld, at international borders. The government of Canada is evaluating using iris recognition at a distance for events like the 2010 Olympics. There are two different usability issues: with respect to the end user, and with respect to the authenticator. People’s acceptance of biometrics is very much dependent on the context. And of course, biometrics are not secret. Patrick suggested that to defend ourselves against this proliferation of using biometrics for authentication, the individual should publish them. The rationale is that we’re publishing them anyway, so we might as well do it knowingly.

Luke Church, Cambridge University (suggested reading: SHB Position Paper; Usability and the Common Criteria), talked about what he called “user-centered design.” There’s a economy of usability: “in order to make some things easier, we have to make some things harder” — so it makes sense to make the commonly done things easier at the expense of the rarely done things. This has a lot of parallels with security. The result is “appliancisation” (with a prize for anyone who come up with a better name): the culmination of security behaviors and what the system can do embedded in a series of user choices. Basically, giving users meaningful control over their security. Luke discussed several benefits and problems with the approach.

Diana Smetters, Palo Alto Research Center (suggested reading: Breaking out of the browser to defend against phishing attacks; Building secure mashups; Ad-hoc guesting: when exceptions are the rule), started with these premises: you can teach users, but you can’t teach them very much, so you’d better carefully design systems so that you 1) minimize what they have to learn, 2) make it easier for them to learn it, and 3) maximize the benefit from what they learn. Too often, security is at odds with getting the job done. “As long as configuration errors (false alarms) are common, any technology that requires users to observe security indicators and react to them will fail as attacks can simply masquerade as errors, and users will rationally ignore them.” She recommends meeting the user halfway by building new security models that actually fit the users’ needs. (For example: Phishing is a mismatch problem, between what’s in the user’s head and where the URL is actually going. SSL doesn’t work, but how should websites authenticate themselves to users? Her solution is protected links: a set of secure bookmarks in protected browsers. She went on to describe a prototype and tests run with user subjects.

Jon Callas, PGP Corporation (suggested reading: Improving Message Security with a Self-Assembling PKI), used the metaphor of the “security cliff”: you have to keep climbing until you get to the top and that’s hard, so it’s easier to just stay at the bottom. He wants more of a “security ramp,” so people can reasonably stop somewhere in the middle. His idea is to have a few policies — e-mail encryption, rules about USB drives — and enforce them. This works well in organizations, where IT has dictatorial control over user configuration. If we can’t teach users much, we need to enforce policies on users.

Rob Reeder, Microsoft (suggested reading: Expanding Grids for Visualizing and Authoring Computer Security Policies), presented a possible solution to the secret questions problem: social authentication. The idea is to use people you know (trustees) to authenticate who you are, and have them attest to the fact that you lost your password. He went on to describe how the protocol works, as well as several potential attacks against the protocol and defenses, and experiments that tested the protocol. In the question session he talked about people designating themselves as trustees, and how that isn’t really a problem.

Lorrie Cranor, Carnegie Mellon University (suggested reading: A Framework for Reasoning about the Human in the Loop; Timing Is Everything? The Effects of Timing and Placement of Online Privacy Indicators; School of Phish: A Real-Word Evaluation of Anti-Phishing Training; You’ve Been Warned: An Empirical Study of the Effectiveness of Web Browser Phishing Warnings), talked about security warnings. The best option is to fix the hazard; the second best is to guard against it — but far too often we just warn people about it. But since hazards are generally not very hazardous, most people just ignore them. “Often, software asks the user and provides little or no information to help user make this decision.” Better is to use some sort of automated analysis to assist the user in responding to warnings. For websites, for example, the system should block sites with a high probability of danger, not bother users if there is a low probably of danger, and help the user make the decision in the grey area. She went on to describe a prototype and user studies done with the prototype; her paper will be presented at USENIX Security in August.

Much of the discussion centered on how bad the problem really is, and how much security is good enough. The group also talked about economic incentives companies have to either fix or ignore security problems, and whether market approaches (or, as Jean Camp called it, “the happy Libertarian market pony”) are sufficient. Some companies have incentives to convince users to do the wrong thing, or at the very least to do nothing. For example, social networking sites are more valuable if people share their information widely.

Further discussion was about whitelisting, and whether it worked or not. There’s the problem of the bad guys getting on the whitelist, and the risk that organizations like the RIAA will use the whitelist to enforce copyright, or that large banks will use the whitelist as a tool to block smaller start-up banks. Another problem is that the user might not understand what a whitelist signifies.

Dave Clark from the audience: “It’s not hard to put a seat belt on, and if you need a lesson, take a plane.”

Kind of a one-note session. We definitely need to invite more psych people.

Adam Shostack’s liveblogging is here. Ross Anderson’s liveblogging is in his blog post’s comments. Matt Blaze’s audio is here.

Posted on June 11, 2009 at 2:56 PMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.