Internet security: What will work

Here's a radical plan for making the Internet safe for every legitimate user

In the first column of this year, I discussed computer security outlook and hopes for 2008. I forecast more of the same that we saw in 2007: more spam, more malware, more bad guys basically owning the Internet and our connected computers. I don't see any trends or new leaders with significant power to change the status quo.

[ RogerGrimes's column is now a blog! Get the latest IT security news from the Security Adviser blog. ]

That doesn't mean there aren't solutions. Last year, in several columns, I detailed one of the ways that a more secure Internet might be forged in the future. It's my vision. And the more I think about it, it's the only way I can see the Internet becoming significantly more secure. All other plans that I've come across break down under scrutiny or seem to rely on us becoming accustomed to a significant amount of computer crime. The other plans might reduce computer crime, but only temporarily and by a small amount.

I'm far from a computer genius, but I have convinced myself, and a few others, that my plan is right and everyone else's plan is wrong. Boy, I love having my own column.

The perfect plan
Here's my plan in a nutshell: All computer devices, users, and transactions must be authenticated by default.

That's it.

Why do malicious hackers hack? Because we can't catch them. Until we put in place default mechanisms to ensure that most criminals are identified and caught (instead of the current tiny minority now apprehended), hacking will continue unabated.

Instead, we must make all computers, users, and their network communications authenticated and identifiable by default. We start by making hardware impervious to hardware hacks. If someone hacks the hardware, it will refuse to boot. Personally, I don't want to stop hardware mods to iPhones and Xboxes. I just want to stop malicious hackers from modifying participating hardware in such a way that it bypasses all the other mechanisms I propose. Like in the OSI model, if you compromise a lower layer, you can't trust the upper layers.

After verifying a hardware device's boot sequence, the firmware/software portion of the boot process would be verified and accomplished. Each device would have a unique hardware ID that specifically identifies the device and cannot be spoofed.

The user is authenticated using two-factor (or more) or biometric identifiers. Network administrators where the computing device originates, whether on a corporate network, an ISP, or a telco switch, would be held accountable for correctly authenticating the users on their networks.

All OSes and programs would be authenticated and approved before running. If the executable or supporting file isn't approved, it doesn't load into memory. If you allow users to install everything they want without some sort of security approval, then you will never stop bad things or bad people from abusing computers. I'll discuss this more in next week's column.

Because approved users can still do bad things using approved programs, it's essential that network packets be authenticated from source to destination, and traceable back to their originating point. This will prevent a user from creating malware and sending it to another location, or prevent a malicious user from using another innocent user's computer to do the same. In my Internet world, if the bad guy "borrowed" someone else's computer, we'd always be able to trace the perpetrator back to their lair.

Routers and networks that carry our information from point A to point B would also be authenticated and their unique identities added to each passed packet. It wouldn't be as slow as you think -- network devices are working at electric speeds (the speed of light minus minor, unavoidable impedances). Tacking on a unique, authenticable identifier will not add that much overhead.

The downside
Unfortunately, my brilliant idea (probably already thought of by a hundred other great minds decades ago) requires a complete rebuild of every involved component: hardware, software, and user logons. The good thing is that most of the technology and smarts to make it happen already exist. A tweak here or there is all that is needed...well, that and universal cooperation and planning.

Because we like to do things in evolution vs. revolution, my model proposes "rings of trust," where differing levels of trust can be defined by each participating party. Users and computers not up on the latest computer security checks will be assigned a lower level of trust and have to go through additional (traditional) layers of security checks (anti-virus, anti-spam, and so on). Traffic arriving from users and computers with higher levels of trust will go directly to their intended destination.

Yes, even this system will be hacked, but it will fix the discovered problem, and all malicious exploits of that vulnerability are prevented at once. This beats our current game of "whack-a-mole" security defense.

If you don't like my plan, stay with the current status quo or make up your own plan. Stay on your version of the Internet and compute away. I'm hoping that someone powerful enough, a consortium of enough interested people and companies, comes together to make my vision a reality. Dare to dream.

And if you can make up a better solution, the world should beat a path to your door. Until then I'll just continue to believe my solution is the only one.

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