Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Uncommon Security Common Sense

I can not claim that I actually counted or classified all the reasons peoples cite for not taking security (or for that matter sound and well thought through system design) seriously from the start, but the three following lines seems to be the most common ones:

1- The "it is too contained" line: So what is the big deal? at worst it may affect a very small percentage of my users.
2- The "it is too early" line: Oh my system/site/project is too small and we only have a few users, we really don't have time/resources for this.
3- The "it is too small" line: My project is too small or too obscure for anyone to care.

By the way, I have heard these lines or their equivalent not only when it comes to security engineering (or re-engineering) but also in designing business policies or risk management measure to prevent fraud, or in general negative user experiences as well as general system design.

Now to be fair, these reasons all sound like "common sense", after all why would you take on additional cost and time for your project or accept the expense and risk of re-engineering your code to fix an issue that may only affect 1% or 0.01% of your users? or why should you spend two weeks to fortify a system that takes you 3 days to design and it is "just an experiment"? and finally who really cares about a small project some where with some obscure URLs that takes an email address as one of its inputs and shows some useful error message if the email is not registered? does ANYONE really care?

Well, as it turns out, security common sense (like many other form of common sense) is actually quite uncommon ! Let's look at these frequently cited common sense logic a bit closer.

To demonstrate the fallacy behind the first logic (it is too contained, it only affect 0.01% of users) I cannot think of any better illustration than the words of presidential candidate Herman Cain where he said that "for each woman who has accused him of harassment there are probably thousands who haven't" and he is 100% accurate and right! But does that make any difference? In all likelihood his presidential bid is all but over. Or could the Washington D.C police chief during the "D.C Sniper Attacks" have possibly argued that the whole thing was not a big deal b/c only 0.001% of D.C metro population were actually killed and therefore there is no need for massive mobilization of police, FBI, ATF and even secret service !?

The same math is thru for security, it does not matter if only 1000 users out of 10MM become victim of a
poorly secured or design system. What matters is how many people hear and learn about it - and you can be
sure that at least in this day and age that number is a few order of magnitude larger than the actual number of
victims. The sense of insecurity that this causes in the rest of the user community and its economic cost is the real math that matters not the fact that only 1000/10MM=0.01% users were affected.

The second line "it is too early" or its equivalents "we don't have enough time or resources" is the most commons line not only in security matters but also system design and architecture aspects as well. What is interesting here is that the exact premise cited for not focusing on security (or sound design for that matter), is why security should be taken seriously i.e. "I am too new to afford not to be secure", if you are releasing a new product (or brand or a site) you REALLY DO NOT HAVE A SECOND CHANCE TO MAKE A FIRST IMPRESSION. If you are not secure, or if your first few user gets taken advantage off (think of AirBnB incident) you are doomed. To further demonstrate the risk in this argument I submit the following picture of one of the more famous car design mistakes : Honda Odyssey 1998

Honda designed this in a hurry to get into the growing minivan market dominated by Dodge/Chrysler. They decided to differentiate by replacing a convenient power sliding door with a traditional door! Imagine what would have happened of this was a new no-name company without Honda's established brand? Of course Honda corrected the mistake in 1999 model and beyond and went on to have one of the most successful Minivans. But if you are not Honda, you better spend time and money on designers and marketers to tell you,  in the first try, that whoever buys a minivan *needs* a sliding door.

Now we get to the third line "Who really cares about me?" I have to admit that I have the most sympathy with people who resort to this logic. After all it is tough to imagine how capable and resourceful the modern fraudester/hacker community is without actually having a brush with them. I do not get into the details -  if you are interested you can briefly scan Rick Howard's excellent book "Cyber Fraud, tactics, Techniques and Procedure" - for the purpose of this writing I'd suggest you assume the following is true:

In the game of "Who wants to break into my system" your adversary is more motivated (financially or politically) than you are, more experienced than you are, is more innovative than you are, is more nimble than you are, wants it worst than you do, has a smaller cost base than you do (and therefore) all he needs is 0.01% (or smaller) of your users - the ONLY advantage that you have is that you right the rule of the game. Do not give up that advantage easily. You WILL lose the game.

Btw, the end point URL that takes an email and very nicely checks and display an error if email does not belong to a valid user - was actually found (although it was a little obscure URL not linked to from anywhere -  and used to extract valid company X user emails (cost $5000+) from a large list of non-verified harvested emails (cost $50) - a vital part of phishing industry value chain.


collision repair said...

Honda headlights are important part of the vehicle. Headlights are important fro both safety and looks. Without the proper headlights it is hard to see at night or in adverse weather conditions. This can be extremely dangerous, not to mention, potentially open you up for a costly traffic ticket. Having the proper headlights also ensures that your Honda looks sleek. Honda designs headlights with function and design in mind, so they just make the look of the car.
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Farhang (@farhangkassaei) said...

The comment above is a perfect illustration of fallacy of the third logic above: You can not cover your vulnerabilities by hiding behind "I am too small" cover.

Nguyen Duc said...

nice blog

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