Computer Security and Anti-Lock Brakes

You may well wonder what the two items in the title of this post have to do with each other. Computer Security is of course the practices and tools that go into having a secure computing experience while anti-lock brakes are a safety feature on most modern cars.

When anti-lock brakes were introduced, they were hailed as a life-saving technology that was sure to reduce the number of accidents on the road and result in less injuries and cost savings for everybody. However, the real-world results never matched these expectations. When drivers learned about and began using anti-lock braking systems, they started driving faster, following closer and braking later. All of these factors effectively cancelled out the predicted benefit of introducing them in the first place.

A number of studies have concluded that Risk Compensation is the reason for this result:"an effect whereby individual people may tend to adjust their behavior in response to perceived changes in risk".

So, what's really happening here? People go about their lives behaving in ways based on the perceived risks of their activity. If they think they might get hit by a car when crossing a street (the risks are higher) they will look both ways before crossing. If they think they might have less odds of getting into an accident because their car has anti-lock brakes (the risks are lower) then they will drive more aggressively.

The effect is even more pronounced in professional sports. The National Football League (NFL) is experiencing more significant injuries while at the same time deploying safer equipment and changing rules in the name of safety. Players are responding to the perceived decrease in risks by playing the game more aggressively.

Putting Safety Pads on Your Computer

I believe Computer Security for consumers also suffers from the Risk Compensation effect, especially when it comes to firewalls and anti-virus software.

Firewalls and anti-virus software are staples of your average consumer computing experience. Most consumers don't really understand what these tools are or how they work, but they are told that if they use them and keep them up to date, they will be safe. Consumers are rarely educated about the basics of computer security technology. It would be charitable to say this is an oversight of an industry that wants to provide a safe and turn-key experience to its consumers. The more cynical reader is probably already thinking the more likely explanation; the technology industry doesn't think users can or will ever be able to understand these issues.

The problem is that firewalls and anti-virus software are not nearly as effective as our industry has led consumers to believe. Combine this situation with Risk Compensation and we have an impending disaster on our hands. Consumers who are not educated on the basics of computer security are taking significant risks based on a false perception that firewall and anti-virus software will keep them safe.

Drivers Ed

The analogy with anti-lock brakes is a useful one in more ways than one. Clearly the automotive industry and our society is doing something right concerning automobiles or we would have an epidemic of automotive accidents. I think the key is two-fold: 1) a sense of responsibility and 2) education.

Unlike when your average consumer buys a computer, a new driver must go through drivers education and pass a written exam. Vehicles come with manuals that have all of the basic operational details spelled out including all safety procedures. At the same time, we have laws and regulations that hold a driver responsible for the operation of their vehicle.

The result is a driving experience that we as a society are relatively happy with.

Putting on the Brakes

In comparison, when a consumer buys a computer, they rush home to unpack it, watch a quick introductory video on how to attach it to the Internet, install anti-virus and firewall software and then start surfing. No computer security information is taught and no sense of responsibility is imparted for how the computer is operated.

I want to make sure readers don't think I'm suggesting that we require a computer security version of drivers ed and a license to operate a computer nor that we need to pass new laws making users responsible for the actions taken by their compromised computers.

What I am advocating is that we start educating users about computer security. If they can learn important and complicated information regarding the safe operation of a car, they can surely learn material presented at the same level about computer security. I'm also advocating that we stop pretending that anti-virus and firewall software are going to protect consumers from all of the ills on the Internet.

People need to understand what level of real protection these tools are providing – and what risks they are still exposed to – so that they can become a constructive and active participant in improving computer security for everybody.

Of Guns and Malware

I came across this video the other day:

It's a really entertaining TED Talk about the world of computer security from the perspective of malware and presented by Mikko Hypponen of F-Secure. I encourage you to watch.

He closes with the following:

I've spent my life defending the Net, and I do feel that if we don't fight online crime, we are running a risk of losing it all. We have to do this globally, and we have to do it right now. What we need is more global, international law enforcement work to find online criminal gangs -- these organized gangs that are making millions out of their attacks. That's much more important than running anti-viruses or running firewalls. What actually matters is actually finding the people behind these attacks, and even more importantly, we have to find the people who are about to become part of this online world of crime, but haven't yet done it. We have to find the people with the skills, but without the opportunities and give them the opportunities to use their skills for good.

In other words, anti-virus and firewalls aren't the solution to our problem. Stopping the people who create and produce malware is.

At the same time, we have this sentiment that bubbled up in the news recently:

Is antivirus software a waste of money?

As it turns out, many of his security-minded peers don't use [antivirus software] either. The reason: If someone is going to try and attack them, they're likely to use a new technique, one that most antivirus products will miss. "If you asked the average security expert whether they use antivirus or not," Grossman says "a significant proportion of them do not."

That's a pretty clear indictment of the status quo. What we are doing is not working.

Guns don't kill people, people kill people

What I believe is happening here is a growing realization of what I've talked about before. The current security situation is a never ending battle of measure and counter-measure with ever increasing casualties. What is needed is a dramatic change in the way we approach this battle.

Mikko points to one way to change this. Stop trying to stop the "guns" in this battle from being manufactured and distributed; instead go after the people who are using them to commit crimes.

However, the same Wired article from above goes on to cite another approach:

Patterson said his company, Patco, had “good AV” at the time of the attack, but nevertheless it missed the password-stealing Trojan. Now, two years later, he’s taken an inexpensive step that every small business should take to prevent his company from becoming victim to this type of fraud: He’s told his bank give him a call before it authorizes any big money transfers.

This to me is the real game changer. And I hope to make Trust Inn the catalyst for that change.