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Security: getting the facts about cybergeddon

Straight answers rarer than hen's teeth

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When everyone in the security world has something to sell, it's harder than ever to get straight answers about genuine threats.

A client called me a few weeks back cursing like Joe Pesci with Tourette's Syndrome. He had found himself defending against a maelstrom of security issues that had "become unmanageable", as he put it.

This was right at the time that we were dealing with yet another round of email-borne worms and viruses, while simultaneously drowning in urgent doomsday warnings about the ASN.1 issue - presented as the "Oh my Lord in Heaven" vulnerability by everyone and their grandmother.

My client was absolutely livid, and completely fed up with someone... he just didn't know who. He was mad at the virus writers for launching malicious code, he was mad at his users for executing malicious code, he was mad at Microsoft for writing vulnerable code, he was mad at eEye for discovering vulnerabilities, and he was mad at me just because I was a security guy. After letting him know that I double my rate when I have to deal with angst, he dropped the last bit.

But after talking with him for a while, it became clear that his major issue was with the security community in general. He really had no idea what issues were most important or what issues to deal with first. He had no real guidance when it came to working out what the real threats to his business were, or what the genuine associated risks were.

The problem was that everyone had something different to say about what they thought was really important.

He called me to cut through the crap. I'm what he calls a "special project" vendor. You see, they have a security vendor, but they call me when they want to get things done. I'm not tooting my own horn; that is not my point. My point is that they have contracts with other vendors, but when it comes down to production, they bypass all the politics and red tape to get me (or people just like me) in there to actually get problems solved. Even security has become so commercialised and politicised that customers are being forced to go outside normal channels.

In my customer's case, he did not know where to turn. Many "security experts" were touting the ASN.1 vulnerability discovered by eEye as the most serious security hole in the Windows line-up. Some professional organisations recommended that companies stop what they were doing and patch all systems without regard to cost. Some called it the "mother of all vulnerabilities".

That hype is what bit my client in the rear. Someone On High ordered him to patch everything - priority one. But in the meantime, all hell was breaking loose from variants of MyDoom, NetSky, and the rest of the current batch of nasties. Yes, the ASN.1 vulnerability is serious, but I'll continue in the vein of my worm predictions and say that we won't be seeing any global events from this one. It just doesn't have the right stuff.

I've frequently used this space to chastise media and security pundits for their misrepresentation of the actual threat posed by some vulnerabilities. With the ASN.1 vulnerability, it is not so much that facts were misrepresented, it's just that the energy that went into the warnings was out of line with the danger: everyone just jumped on the Chicken Little bandwagon because it was an opportunity to bash Redmond. It wasn't pro-security, it was just anti-Microsoft.

Vulnerability clearing houses like CERT used to be well-regarded arbiters of what matters in security. But now CERT has a reputation of selling off vulnerability information to private parties, and researchers like David and Mark Litchfield have stopped bringing the organisation into the loop. There is not much point in having such an organisation if folks like the Litchfields won't play with you.

We are really just getting a handle on the stuff of security, and yet much of it is becoming superficial. Many of the products and services today remind me of those little "Sealed for your Safety" wrappers on today's products. They don't give you any "real" security, and what's even worse is that the only indication the security mechanism exists is the mechanism itself. Rip off the "seal", and not only is it gone, but so is the message that tells you it was there in the first place.

I know everyone has something they are trying to sell, but when the end result is confusing the customer, we need to rethink the way we market our products, and the way information in general is being dispensed.

Copyright © 2004, 0

Timothy M. Mullen is CIO and Chief Software Architect for AnchorIS.Com, a developer of secure, enterprise-based accounting software. AnchorIS.Com also provides security consulting services for a variety of companies, including Microsoft Corporation.

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