30 May 2007
This post is related to Security is not a switch. The point I want to make here is that the security problems we all face will never go away. More specifically, the exact type of threats we face will change, but the underlying problem will remain. The problem is that there are people with things to protect (money, information, privacy), and others who want to get it without permission.
I’ve come to realize more completely what this means only recently: there is no day in the future that has perfectly secure software programs and security techniques, making security concerns irrelevent. This is easy to miss, because it seems that security is something that is always improving, even if just a little bit at a time. It’s tempting to think this progress is aimed at a pinnacle, and we’ll hit it eventually. We won’t.
A more apt analogy for the security problems we all face is that of an arms race. Bruce Schneier has pointed this out again and again about numerous security problems. Here he is explaining the problem of spam:
Anti-spam products block a certain type of spam. Spammers invent a tactic that gets around those products. Then the products block that spam. Then the spammers invent yet another type of spam. And so on.
Blacklisting spammer sites forced the spammers to disguise the origin of spam e-mail. People recognizing e-mail from people they knew, and other anti-spam measures, forced spammers to hack into innocent machines and use them as launching pads. Scanning millions of e-mails looking for identical bulk spam forced spammers to individualize each spam message. Semantic spam detection forced spammers to design even more clever spam. And so on. Each defense is met with yet another attack, and each attack is met with yet another defense.
But wait. Is spam really a security problem? Actually, yes. At least, it has all the characterisitics of one, and it can teach us something about security problems in general.
Security problems arise when some people have something valuable that others want really badly. In the case of spam, people have time and attention that is very valuable, and advertisers want it really badly. Few people willingly sit down to imbibe a session of advertisements, but when advertisers do get someone’s time/attention it is remarkably valuable. Faced with this incentive, some advertisers act unscrupulously. Instead of sweetly requesting your time, they attempt to hijack it by spamming your email inbox. You attempt to stop them, and they adapt their methods. It’s a classic arms race security problem.
The arms race is exactly why security will never be solved. So long as some people have something others want badly, there will those who will try to get it by by force or trickery.
The lesson is not so grim
Let’s not get depressed just yet. That security problems will always be with us is too bad. However, this doesn’t mean that you should stop trying, or, alternatively, spend all your time trying to defend the things you’ve got that others might also want.
What it means is that the software and tactics that are being developed every day to combat the problem are less of a solution than you might otherwise have believed. Keeping you, your time, your money, your privacy, and your information secure is probably better accomplished by thinking about the problem correctly.
What I’ve advocated on this site is making yourself a harder target than most others on the internet, so that, with a high probability, a bad guy faced with cracking your defenses will give up and move on to the many other, less well-defended folks.
You might ask: “Wait! We can’t all be above average in terms of security, can we?” That’s true, of course. But most people don’t do much of anything to protect their security, so it’s really not hard to be better than average. Following some of the advice on this website will put you well ahead of the average. Until 50% or more of the world’s internet users start implementing techniques of the type I’ve been advocating, you don’t have to worry about the difficulty of being above average. And that day is a long way off.