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Security as a public health discipline, not an engineering one


In my latest Guardian column, If GCHQ wants to improve national security it must fix our technology, I argue that computer security isn't really an engineering issue, it's a public health issue. As with public health, it's more important to be sure that our pathogens are disclosed, understood and disclosed than it is to keep them secret so we can use them against our enemies.

Scientists formulate theories that they attempt to prove through experiments that are reviewed by peers, who attempt to spot flaws in the reasoning and methodology. Scientific theories are in a state of continuous, tumultuous improvement as old ideas are overturned in part or whole, and replaced with new ones.

Security is science on meth. There is a bedrock of security that is considered relatively stable – the mathematics of scrambling and descrambling messages – but everything above that bedrock has all the stability of a half-set custard. That is, the best way to use those stable, well-validated algorithms is mostly up for grabs, as the complex interplay of incompatible systems, human error, legacy systems, regulations, laziness, recklessness, naivete, adversarial cunning and perverse commercial incentives all jumble together in ways that open the American retailer Target to the loss of 100m credit card numbers, and the whole internet to GCHQ spying.

As Schneier says: “Anyone can design a security system that works so well that he can’t figure out how to break it.” That is to say, your best effort at security is, by definition, only secure against people who are at least as dumb as you are. Unless you happen to be the smartest person in the world, you need to subject your security system to the kind of scrutiny that scientists use to validate their theories, and be prepared to incrementally patch and refactor things as new errors are discovered and reported

If GCHQ wants to improve national security it must fix our technology

(Image: File:CoughsAndSneezesSpreadDiseases.jpg, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)


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