Feeds

Lobbying for insecurity

NSA secure Linux project tangled in politics

  • alert
  • submit to reddit

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

The U.S. National Security Agency's contribution to open-source security, Security-Enhanced Linux, found broad approval and support in geek forums from Wired News to Slashdot that are typically suspicious of the government.

It's not surprising that it couldn't last, however, and a recent CNET article suggests that the NSA may not make further contributions to software released under the GNU General Public License, and perhaps other open-source licenses.

What prompted this decision? Not abuse of their code by script kiddies, nor the ungrateful trolling of the hordes, but lobbying by the U.S. software industry against the government giving away something that could compete with products sold commercially. Microsoft in particular allegedly conducted intense lobbying to block further open-source development by the NSA, according to CNET.

We already knew that security is less a technical problem than a human problem. If true, Microsoft's alleged NSA coup demonstrates that it's a political one as well.

Anything which encourages the use or development of proprietary systems that are difficult to certify for even the most basic levels of security creates additional risk to computer systems; reducing government support for security development for any widely-available and widely-used operating system creates additional risk; and suppressing the development of a competitor's secure software on the basis of market concerns creates a security risk for your customers as well as your competitor's customers.

None of which is to say that Microsoft is doing anything wrong. They're a business, and they are doing what they need to do to win in the marketplace. What's wrong is the rest of the industry allowing them to get away with it.

So what can be done about it? I believe that developing code that runs securely is a good first step, as News.com columnist Declan McCullagh suggests in a recent opinion piece. However, it's hardly a complete solution.

No, what we need to do now is something we haven't been very good at. We have to start playing politics.

The most secure software in the world doesn't improve security if nobody runs it, or if it's incompatible with what the vast majority of people run. Standard is better than better. VINES networks might be more secure than TCP/IP but it does little to secure the Internet as a whole. MD5 password hashing was always more secure than old Unix crypt password hashes, but until vendors started shipping the code, and integrating it via Pluggable Authentication Modules, it made little difference.

Politics is an essential element in the success of any given technology. The quality matters some, as do other factors, but the people and organizations with a knack for the for political are the ones who get to the finish line first.

I'm using the term "politics" broadly here: it includes standards-setting, personal relationships between major personalities, and marketing.

We've seen politics at work in our own community. Quite a number of people feel that Linux is technically inferior to FreeBSD, OpenBSD, or even NetBSD. That makes Linux's success in the marketplace the quintessential triumph of politics: Linux succeeded by being in the right place at the right time, having a unified front in public (if not behind-the-scenes), having a recognizable name and logo, and a number of popular, well-liked people to provide a public face for the effort.

The security community, and the open-source security community in particular, can use that as a roadmap to ensuring that secure open-source solutions aren't buried by proprietary competitors.

There's no harm in writing your Senator or the President; it might help to submit comments to the FTC. But it takes a lot of money and a lot of power to influence the NSA. We should focus our main efforts, instead, on battles that we can win. These are the battles within standards organizations and within our workplaces. Convince the W3C to reject patent-encumbered standards. Make it a policy to rely on open, documented protocols instead of proprietary monstrosities.

If we don't want to lose future market share, if we don't want Microsoft to dictate its terms to the security community, if we don't want to be stuck with whatever they choose to offer the marketplace, we have to play politics. The only alternative is to let Microsoft dominate the marketplace and dictate future standards. I can't imagine how that would improve the security of our systems.

© 2002 SecurityFocus.com, all rights reserved.

Top 5 reasons to deploy VMware with Tegile

More from The Register

next story
Webcam hacker pervs in MASS HOME INVASION
You thought you were all alone? Nope – change your password, says ICO
You really need to do some tech support for Aunty Agnes
Free anti-virus software, expires, stops updating and p0wns the world
Meet OneRNG: a fully-open entropy generator for a paranoid age
Kiwis to seek random investors for crowd-funded randomiser
USB coding anarchy: Consider all sticks licked
Thumb drive design ruled by almighty buck
Attack reveals 81 percent of Tor users but admins call for calm
Cisco Netflow a handy tool for cheapskate attackers
Privacy bods offer GOV SPY VICTIMS a FREE SPYWARE SNIFFER
Looks for gov malware that evades most antivirus
Patch NOW! Microsoft slings emergency bug fix at Windows admins
Vulnerability promotes lusers to domain overlords ... oops
prev story

Whitepapers

Choosing cloud Backup services
Demystify how you can address your data protection needs in your small- to medium-sized business and select the best online backup service to meet your needs.
A strategic approach to identity relationship management
ForgeRock commissioned Forrester to evaluate companies’ IAM practices and requirements when it comes to customer-facing scenarios versus employee-facing ones.
High Performance for All
While HPC is not new, it has traditionally been seen as a specialist area – is it now geared up to meet more mainstream requirements?
Getting ahead of the compliance curve
Learn about new services that make it easy to discover and manage certificates across the enterprise and how to get ahead of the compliance curve.
Saudi Petroleum chooses Tegile storage solution
A storage solution that addresses company growth and performance for business-critical applications of caseware archive and search along with other key operational systems.