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Measuring the Rationality of Security Decisions

Interesting research: “Dancing Pigs or Externalities? Measuring the Rationality of
Security Decisions

Abstract: Accurately modeling human decision-making in security is critical to thinking about when, why, and how to recommend that users adopt certain secure behaviors. In this work, we conduct behavioral economics experiments to model the rationality of end-user security decision-making in a realistic online experimental system simulating a bank account. We ask participants to make a financially impactful security choice, in the face of transparent risks of account compromise and benefits offered by an optional security behavior (two-factor authentication). We measure the cost and utility of adopting the security behavior via measurements of time spent executing the behavior and estimates of the participant’s wage. We find that more than 50% of our participants made rational (e.g., utility optimal) decisions, and we find that participants are more likely to behave rationally in the face of higher risk. Additionally, we find that users’ decisions can be modeled well as a function of past behavior (anchoring effects), knowledge of costs, and to a lesser extent, users’ awareness of risks and context (R2=0.61). We also find evidence of endowment effects, as seen in other areas of economic and psychological decision-science literature, in our digital-security setting. Finally, using our data, we show theoretically that a “one-size-fits-all” emphasis on security can lead to market losses, but that adoption by a subset of users with higher risks or lower costs can lead to market gains

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GCHQ on Quantum Key Distribution

The UK’s GCHQ delivers a brutally blunt assessment of quantum key distribution:

QKD protocols address only the problem of agreeing keys for encrypting data. Ubiquitous on-demand modern services (such as verifying identities and data integrity, establishing network sessions, providing access control, and automatic software updates) rely more on authentication and integrity mechanisms — such as digital signatures — than on encryption.

QKD technology cannot replace the flexible authentication mechanisms provided by contemporary public key signatures. QKD also seems unsuitable for some of the grand future challenges such as securing the Internet of Things (IoT), big data, social media, or cloud applications.

I agree with them. It’s a clever idea, but basically useless in practice. I don’t even think it’s anything more than a niche solution in a world where quantum computers have broken our traditional public-key algorithms.

Read the whole thing. It’s short.

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On Financial Fraud

There are some good lessons in this article on financial fraud:

That’s how we got it so wrong. We were looking for incidental breaches of technical regulations, not systematic crime. And the thing is, that’s normal. The nature of fraud is that it works outside your field of vision, subverting the normal checks and balances so that the world changes while the picture stays the same. People in financial markets have been missing the wood for the trees for as long as there have been markets.


Trust — particularly between complete strangers, with no interactions beside relatively anonymous market transactions — is the basis of the modern industrial economy. And the story of the development of the modern economy is in large part the story of the invention and improvement of technologies and institutions for managing that trust.

And as industrial society develops, it becomes easier to be a victim. In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith described how prosperity derived from the division of labour — the 18 distinct operations that went into the manufacture of a pin, for example. While this was going on, the modern world also saw a growing division of trust. The more a society benefits from the division of labour in checking up on things, the further you can go into a con game before you realise that you’re in one.


Libor teaches us a valuable lesson about commercial fraud — that unlike other crimes, it has a problem of denial as well as one of detection. There are very few other criminal acts where the victim not only consents to the criminal act, but voluntarily transfers the money or valuable goods to the criminal. And the hierarchies, status distinctions and networks that make up a modern economy also create powerful psychological barriers against seeing fraud when it is happening. White-collar crime is partly defined by the kind of person who commits it: a person of high status in the community, the kind of person who is always given the benefit of the doubt.


Fraudsters don’t play on moral weaknesses, greed or fear; they play on weaknesses in the system of checks and balances — the audit processes that are meant to supplement an overall environment of trust. One point that comes up again and again when looking at famous and large-scale frauds is that, in many cases, everything could have been brought to a halt at a very early stage if anyone had taken care to confirm all the facts. But nobody does confirm all the facts. There are just too bloody many of them. Even after the financial rubble has settled and the arrests been made, this is a huge problem.

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Department of Commerce Report on the Botnet Threat

Last month, the US Department of Commerce released a report on the threat of botnets and what to do about it. I note that it explicitly said that the IoT makes the threat worse, and that the solutions are largely economic.

The Departments determined that the opportunities and challenges in working toward dramatically reducing threats from automated, distributed attacks can be summarized in six principal themes.

  1. Automated, distributed attacks are a global problem. The majority of the compromised devices in recent noteworthy botnets have been geographically located outside the United States. To increase the resilience of the Internet and communications ecosystem against these threats, many of which originate outside the United States, we must continue to work closely with international partners.

  2. Effective tools exist, but are not widely used. While there remains room for improvement, the tools, processes, and practices required to significantly enhance the resilience of the Internet and communications ecosystem are widely available, and are routinely applied in selected market sectors. However, they are not part of common practices for product development and deployment in many other sectors for a variety of reasons, including (but not limited to) lack of awareness, cost avoidance, insufficient technical expertise, and lack of market incentives

  3. Products should be secured during all stages of the lifecycle. Devices that are vulnerable at time of deployment, lack facilities to patch vulnerabilities after discovery, or remain in service after vendor support ends make assembling automated, distributed threats far too easy.

  4. Awareness and education are needed. Home users and some enterprise customers are often unaware of the role their devices could play in a botnet attack and may not fully understand the merits of available technical controls. Product developers, manufacturers, and infrastructure operators often lack the knowledge and skills necessary to deploy tools, processes, and practices that would make the ecosystem more resilient.

  5. Market incentives should be more effectively aligned. Market incentives do not currently appear to align with the goal of “dramatically reducing threats perpetrated by automated and distributed attacks.” Product developers, manufacturers, and vendors are motivated to minimize cost and time to market, rather than to build in security or offer efficient security updates. Market incentives must be realigned to promote a better balance between security and convenience when developing products.

  6. Automated, distributed attacks are an ecosystem-wide challenge. No single stakeholder community can address the problem in isolation.


The Departments identified five complementary and mutually supportive goals that, if realized, would dramatically reduce the threat of automated, distributed attacks and improve the resilience and redundancy of the ecosystem. A list of suggested actions for key stakeholders reinforces each goal. The goals are:

  • Goal 1: Identify a clear pathway toward an adaptable, sustainable, and secure technology marketplace.
  • Goal 2: Promote innovation in the infrastructure for dynamic adaptation to evolving threats.
  • Goal 3: Promote innovation at the edge of the network to prevent, detect, and mitigate automated, distributed attacks.
  • Goal 4: Promote and support coalitions between the security, infrastructure, and operational technology communities domestically and around the world
  • Goal 5: Increase awareness and education across the ecosystem.

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Regulating Bitcoin

Ross Anderson has a new paper on cryptocurrency exchanges. From his blog:

Bitcoin Redux explains what’s going wrong in the world of cryptocurrencies. The bitcoin exchanges are developing into a shadow banking system, which do not give their customers actual bitcoin but rather display a “balance” and allow them to transact with others. However if Alice sends Bob a bitcoin, and they’re both customers of the same exchange, it just adjusts their balances rather than doing anything on the blockchain. This is an e-money service, according to European law, but is the law enforced? Not where it matters. We’ve been looking at the details.

The paper.

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Estimating the Cost of Internet Insecurity

It’s really hard to estimate the cost of an insecure Internet. Studies are all over the map. A methodical study by RAND is the best work I’ve seen at trying to put a number on this. The results are, well, all over the map:

Estimating the Global Cost of Cyber Risk: Methodology and Examples“:

Abstract: There is marked variability from study to study in the estimated direct and systemic costs of cyber incidents, which is further complicated by the considerable variation in cyber risk in different countries and industry sectors. This report shares a transparent and adaptable methodology for estimating present and future global costs of cyber risk that acknowledges the considerable uncertainty in the frequencies and costs of cyber incidents. Specifically, this methodology (1) identifies the value at risk by country and industry sector; (2) computes direct costs by considering multiple financial exposures for each industry sector and the fraction of each exposure that is potentially at risk to cyber incidents; and (3) computes the systemic costs of cyber risk between industry sectors using Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development input, output, and value-added data across sectors in more than 60 countries. The report has a companion Excel-based modeling and simulation platform that allows users to alter assumptions and investigate a wide variety of research questions. The authors used a literature review and data to create multiple sample sets of parameters. They then ran a set of case studies to show the model’s functionality and to compare the results against those in the existing literature. The resulting values are highly sensitive to input parameters; for instance, the global cost of cyber crime has direct gross domestic product (GDP) costs of $275 billion to $6.6 trillion and total GDP costs (direct plus systemic) of $799 billion to $22.5 trillion (1.1 to 32.4 percent of GDP).

Here’s Rand’s risk calculator, if you want to play with the parameters yourself.

Note: I was an advisor to the project.

Separately, Symantec has published a new cybercrime report with their own statistics.

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Regulation of the Internet of Things

Late last month, popular websites like Twitter, Pinterest, Reddit and PayPal went down for most of a day. The distributed denial-of-service attack that caused the outages, and the vulnerabilities that made the attack possible, was as much a failure of market and policy as it was of technology. If we want to secure our increasingly computerized and connected world, we need more government involvement in the security of the “Internet of Things” and increased regulation of what are now critical and life-threatening technologies. It’s no longer a question of if, it’s a question of when.

First, the facts. Those websites went down because their domain name provider — a company named Dyn —­ was forced offline. We don’t know who perpetrated that attack, but it could have easily been a lone hacker. Whoever it was launched a distributed denial-of-service attack against Dyn by exploiting a vulnerability in large numbers ­— possibly millions — of Internet-of-Things devices like webcams and digital video recorders, then recruiting them all into a single botnet. The botnet bombarded Dyn with traffic, so much that it went down. And when it went down, so did dozens of websites.

Your security on the Internet depends on the security of millions of Internet-enabled devices, designed and sold by companies you’ve never heard of to consumers who don’t care about your security.

The technical reason these devices are insecure is complicated, but there is a market failure at work. The Internet of Things is bringing computerization and connectivity to many tens of millions of devices worldwide. These devices will affect every aspect of our lives, because they’re things like cars, home appliances, thermostats, lightbulbs, fitness trackers, medical devices, smart streetlights and sidewalk squares. Many of these devices are low-cost, designed and built offshore, then rebranded and resold. The teams building these devices don’t have the security expertise we’ve come to expect from the major computer and smartphone manufacturers, simply because the market won’t stand for the additional costs that would require. These devices don’t get security updates like our more expensive computers, and many don’t even have a way to be patched. And, unlike our computers and phones, they stay around for years and decades.

An additional market failure illustrated by the Dyn attack is that neither the seller nor the buyer of those devices cares about fixing the vulnerability. The owners of those devices don’t care. They wanted a webcam —­ or thermostat, or refrigerator ­— with nice features at a good price. Even after they were recruited into this botnet, they still work fine ­— you can’t even tell they were used in the attack. The sellers of those devices don’t care: They’ve already moved on to selling newer and better models. There is no market solution because the insecurity primarily affects other people. It’s a form of invisible pollution.

And, like pollution, the only solution is to regulate. The government could impose minimum security standards on IoT manufacturers, forcing them to make their devices secure even though their customers don’t care. They could impose liabilities on manufacturers, allowing companies like Dyn to sue them if their devices are used in DDoS attacks. The details would need to be carefully scoped, but either of these options would raise the cost of insecurity and give companies incentives to spend money making their devices secure.

It’s true that this is a domestic solution to an international problem and that there’s no U.S. regulation that will affect, say, an Asian-made product sold in South America, even though that product could still be used to take down U.S. websites. But the main costs in making software come from development. If the United States and perhaps a few other major markets implement strong Internet-security regulations on IoT devices, manufacturers will be forced to upgrade their security if they want to sell to those markets. And any improvements they make in their software will be available in their products wherever they are sold, simply because it makes no sense to maintain two different versions of the software. This is truly an area where the actions of a few countries can drive worldwide change.

Regardless of what you think about regulation vs. market solutions, I believe there is no choice. Governments will get involved in the IoT, because the risks are too great and the stakes are too high. Computers are now able to affect our world in a direct and physical manner.

Security researchers have demonstrated the ability to remotely take control of Internet-enabled cars. They’ve demonstrated ransomware against home thermostats and exposed vulnerabilities in implanted medical devices. They’ve hacked voting machines and power plants. In one recent paper, researchers showed how a vulnerability in smart lightbulbs could be used to start a chain reaction, resulting in them all being controlled by the attackers ­— that’s every one in a city. Security flaws in these things could mean people dying and property being destroyed.

Nothing motivates the U.S. government like fear. Remember 2001? A small-government Republican president created the Department of Homeland Security in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks: a rushed and ill-thought-out decision that we’ve been trying to fix for more than a decade. A fatal IoT disaster will similarly spur our government into action, and it’s unlikely to be well-considered and thoughtful action. Our choice isn’t between government involvement and no government involvement. Our choice is between smarter government involvement and stupider government involvement. We have to start thinking about this now. Regulations are necessary, important and complex ­— and they’re coming. We can’t afford to ignore these issues until it’s too late.

In general, the software market demands that products be fast and cheap and that security be a secondary consideration. That was okay when software didn’t matter —­ it was okay that your spreadsheet crashed once in a while. But a software bug that literally crashes your car is another thing altogether. The security vulnerabilities in the Internet of Things are deep and pervasive, and they won’t get fixed if the market is left to sort it out for itself. We need to proactively discuss good regulatory solutions; otherwise, a disaster will impose bad ones on us.

This essay previously appeared in the Washington Post.

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