Clueless user: ditch the victim mentality

Get with the security programme

Opinion Writing these columns gets tough sometimes. It can be quite a challenge to keep content current while trying to add value by driving home the basic concepts of security without sounding like a broken record.

But it is clear to me that even today, with products like XP and Windows 2003, many people still live in a world of Windows 95 and NT. Many people still don't get what it will take in order for end-user and enterprise security alike to be a success. So, here I go again, even at the risk of being repetitive.

Walt Mossberg's Wall Street Journal Personal Technology column entitled "Stop Blaming the Victims" ran over a month ago, but it has been bugging me ever since I read it - and even more so after a recent "SANS NewsBites" piece quoted an excerpt from it, as if it were so insightful that we all couldn't go without reading it again. If it was some charlatan with a Web page, I wouldn't give it a second thought - but this is the Wall Street Journal, and I couldn't let it pass without a rebuttal.

I think that it is almost entirely wrong, and that in its wrongness, it illustrates what is most problematic with computer security today and the real reason why security issues persist.

But before I launch into that, let's start with a joke:

Raging floods in the heartland had forced a man to the second story of his home. Rescuers in a boat came by and pleaded with the man to jump in. "No," he said. "My faith will save me." Soon, the rising waters forced him to the roof. Another boat came by, again calling for him to jump in. "No. My faith will save me." Finally, while standing upon his chimney, a helicopter flew by with a ladder lowered, and yet again called for him to save himself. Steadfast, he cried out that his faith would save him and waved the chopper on. The water rose, and the man drowned.

In the afterlife, while standing before the Supreme Being in which he believed, he asked, "Why did you let this happen to me? I believed in you!" The Supreme Being replied "Hey, I sent you two boats and a helicopter. What more do you want from me?"

The thesis of Mossberg's piece is that end users don't care about what an attack is, be it "a virus, a worm, a Trojan horse, a browser hijacker, spyware, adware or just spam", and that Microsoft and other vendors have badly failed the consumer because there is no single, unified mechanism in place to protect the end user from all of these issues, regardless of what it is, or how it works, or how it got into the system.

The solution to this, Mossberg says, is to have "effective, free, constantly updated security service requiring little or no user intervention" which would "fend off all kinds of threats and invasions of privacy, including viruses and spyware, without getting all tangled up in academic distinctions". Since Microsoft makes billions of dollars off of the victim user from its "court-certified" monopoly, and the Bush administration turns a blind eye to it, according to Mossberg, they owe us.

It is fantasy: nothing like that will ever exist, as it simply cannot. New threats emerge every day with new associated risks, and there will never be any unified solution to the sea of possible attacks. Even if there were, and Microsoft were to provide all products outlined to combat these issues, the government would stop them. It would be "unfair to the competition".

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