Security-vendor snake oil: 7 promises that don't deliver

Beware bold promises from a multibillion-dollar industry that can't prevent your IT systems from being routinely hacked

Consider me a career-long computer security curmudgeon. When a vendor guarantees its latest and greatest will defend the world against all computer maliciousness, I yawn. Been there; it didn't pan out.

All computer security vendors want us to think that signing on the dotted line and sending them a check will mean our worries are over. Rarely do they deliver. And although a little marketing hype never really hurts -- we're all used to taking it with a grain of salt -- some vendors can be caught outright lying, expecting us to buy what amounts to security snake oil. 

[ Verse yourself in the 7 sneak attacks used by today's most devious hackers, 14 dirty IT security consultant tricks, 9 popular IT security practices that don't work, and 10 crazy security tricks that do. | Find out how to greatly reduce the threat of malicious attacks with InfoWorld's Insider Threat Deep Dive PDF special report. | Learn how to protect your systems with Roger Grimes' Security Adviser blog and the Security Central newsletter, both from InfoWorld. ]

If you're a hardened IT security pro, you've probably had these tactics run by you over and over. It's never only one vendor touting unbelievable claims but many. It's like a pathology of the computer security industry, this all-too-frequent underhanded quackery used in the hopes of duping an IT organization into buying dubious claims or overhyped wares.

Following are seven computer security claims or technologies that, when mentioned in the sales pitch, should get your snake-oil radar up and primed for false promises.

Security snake oil No. 1: Unbreakable software

Believe it or not, vendors and developers alike have claimed their software is without vulnerability. In fact, "Unbreakable" was the name of one famous vendor's public relations campaign. The formula for this snake oil is simple: The vendor claims that its competitors are weak and don't know how to make invulnerable code the way it does. Buy the vendor's software and live in a world forever without exploits.

The last vendor to claim this had its software exploited so badly, so quickly that it should serve as notice to every computer security organization never to make such a claim again. Amazingly, even as exploit after exploit was discovered in the vendor's software (the vendor is best known for database software), the "Unbreakable" ad campaign continued for another year. We security professionals wondered how many CEOs might have fallen for the PR pitch, not realizing that the vendor's support queues were full of calls demanding quick patches. To this day, dozens of exploits are found every year in that vendor's software.

Of course, this vendor isn't alone with its illusions of invulnerability. Browser vendors used to kick Microsoft for making an overly vulnerable browser in Internet Explorer. But then they would release their invulnerable browsers, only to learn they had more uncovered public vulnerabilities than the browser they claimed was overly vulnerable. You don't hear browser vendors bragging about making perfectly secure browsers anymore.

And then there's the infamous University of Illinois at Chicago professor who consistently lambasts software vendors for making software full of security holes. He chides and belittles them and says they should be subject to legal prosecution for making imperfect software. He even made his own software programs and challenged people to find even one security bug, backing this challenge with a reward. Not surprisingly, people found bugs. Initially he tried to claim that the first found vulnerability wasn't an exploitable bug "within the parameters of the guarantee." Most people disagreed. Then someone found a second bug, in another of his programs, and he paid the reward. Turns out making invulnerable software is pretty difficult.

I don't mean to negate that professor's contributions to computer security. He's one of the best computer security experts in the world -- truly a hero to the cause. But you won't hear him claim anymore that perfect software can be made.

Remember these high-profile lessons in humility the next time you hear a vendor claim that its software is invulnerable.

Security snake oil No. 2: 1,000,000-bit crypto

Every year a vendor or coder no one has heard of claims to have made unbreakable crypto. And, with few exceptions, they fail miserably. Although it's a claim similar to unbreakable software, technical discussion will illuminate a very different flavor of snake oil at work here.

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