The sad state of computer security

The reality of IT security is dismal -- and there's little hope in sight for improvement

I teach computer security for a living. Last week, a class of mine asked which vendor had the best security. I responded that they all are pretty bad. If you aren't using OpenBSD or software by D.J. Bernstein, then every other product in the world is pretty bad in comparison.

Most software contains numerous vulnerabilities, holes, and exploitable routines. Even our anti-malware software and devices, the things that are supposed to protect us, are full of buffer overflows and vulnerabilities. All Internet browsers are full of holes.

The world of computer security is so much worse than the average Internet user or politician believes. Bots own tens of millions of computers at any single point in time. The people who make a living at closing tens to hundreds of thousands of bot-infected computers a day readily admit that they are not making a dent in the bad guy’s ability to use bots for crime.

Most malware exists to steal your money. No need to guess why you’re infected anymore; it ain’t to send greetz to teenage hacker friends. The average criminal hacker is making thousands of dollars a day, if not more, and will never be caught. The only ones we ever catch and prosecute are the dumbest ones.

Most of the professional defenders who are in charge of protecting our national infrastructure -- the government, overseers, national auditors, etc. -- know less about the current state of hacking and malware than the average system administrator. The policy decisions being made today to protect us are for hacking methods used five years ago. There are many excellent people in those roles, but each will readily agree that it's slim pickings to the left and right of them.

It was big news that electronic voting machines are easy to hack. Heck, we've been reading about this for three years now ... and just now it gets to Congress? The only thing worse to contemplate on this issue is how much longer it will truly take before anybody does anything about it. Solutions will drag on forever. What does eventually get passed will not work.

Just think about what it took to put mandatory data encryption of confidential data on the world’s radar screen. One-third of all adults had their financial information stolen this year. And outside of the government, encryption is still not mandated.

Most corporate networks can be owned in an hour. Just send a spam e-mail to corporate employees entitled "Pending 2006 Layoffs" pretending to be from the CEO, and have it contain one of the many MS-Office zero days with an unscannable remote access trojan. I do it for a living, and rarely do I have to wait more than a few minutes for complete network access.

Sadly, the world has decided that real computer security doesn't matter any more than real terrorist security. It's all lip service. We are, and apparently choose to be, reactive sheep. Proactive thinkers get ignored and ridiculed. Most of us buy flood insurance after the first big flood.

After 20 years of computer security service, I've given up most of my emotional investment in thinking computer security will get better -- because reality tells me it probably won’t. The sky isn’t falling … it fell a few years ago.

There is no single product you can buy for any amount of money that will protect you against all computer threats. Actually, it’s much worse than that: There is no single product that will protect you against 100 percent of the threats that it claims it will prevent.

Even more strange, the previous paragraph will induce dozens of computer security firms to send me product literature on their new “fantastic” product that only claim to block some very small segment of computer threats, and they won’t even do that successfully. The irony will be lost on them.

As more and more of the world goes online, and as more of our important infrastructure goes “e-something,” it would appear that we are on a collision course headed toward a tipping point event. And when it does, the sheep will stand aghast wondering how it happened.

I know I’ve published a similar column before, but I feel must re-state the obvious when the mood hits me so that some future pundit or politician doesn’t say “Nobody had any idea it could happen.”

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