A spring cleaning for security

The state of the security union

Good, bad and uglier

Looking forward, we're likely to see good news in the form of more corporate standardization on protocols rather than on particular products. In tandem, OS X and Linux are making good inroads into home and business markets. Together these have two notable security effects. First, the more heterogeneous a given computing environment, the less likely single platform-specific security flaws will propagate and completely cripple an organization. Second, the less focus is given to platform-specific development shortcuts, the more likely it is that decent coding practices and transaction validation will reduce the attack surface of networked applications for all involved. IBM's recent foray into heterogeneous work environments was reported as a Mac-centric news item, but it's the protocol and standards focus that makes a difference in security.

Of course, the bad news is that there's more bad news. Not only are the attacks coming faster, but they're increasingly targeted (note the recent rise in spearphishing) and effective. In the coming year we will likely see the twisted love child of yesteryear's CoolWebSearch (a difficult-to-remove piece of spyware that became legend when new variants started appearing every day). Based on recent research at Carnegie-Mellon, we can expect automated and even-faster production of such security exploits based on automated analysis of just-issued security patches. With an increasingly well-run business model behind spyware and spam, there's tremendous financial motivation for those who would, and probably will, make it happen.

The truly ugly stuff this year, however, is likely to appear in the political arena (as if it hasn't already). As the US stares down another election season with the same shoddy voting technology that threw past contests into turmoil, we find more misuse of security technology for domestic spying on citizens. Privacy's under attack, too, and we'll see more officials who want information privacy rights abrogated laying a snow job on congress.

However, if the maxim holds that "it's not who votes that counts, it's who counts the votes," then the first order of business is to ensure there's some confidence in the system before trying to correct the course of security and privacy laws. It's good that some sense is being injected into the process as states decertify machines that can't be shown to count reliably. What would be nice to see, however, is an even clearer return in political technology to the basic security principle of integrity, not just confidentiality and access control. To that end, my wish for the rest of this year is to see a state or federal statute that quite simply says " It shall be illegal to tally votes by hidden means ." That would be real progress.

Jon Espenschied has been at play in the security industry for enough years to become enthusiastic, blase, cynical, jaded, content and enthusiastic again. He manages information governance reform for a major non-governmental organization, and continues to have his advice ignored by CEOs, auditors and sysadmins alike.

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Jon Espenschied

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