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Exploring the law of unintended consequences

DRM and asbestos curtains meet the Shah of Iran

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Column The law of unintended consequences shows us how many innocent innovations like email, anti-virus and DRM can become something far worse than the inventors had ever imagined.

Back in the 1970s, long before the revolution that would eventually topple him from power, the Shah of Iran was one of America's best friends (he was a dictator who brutally repressed his people, but he was anti-communist, and that made him OK in our book). Wanting to help out a good friend, the United States government agreed to sell Iran the very same intaglio presses used to print American currency so that the Shah could print his own high quality money for his country. Soon enough, the Shah was the proud owner of some of the best money printing machines in the world, and beautiful Iranian Rials proceeded to flow off the presses.

All things must come to an end, and the Shah was forced to flee Iran in 1979 when the Ayatollah Khomeini's rebellion brought theocratic rule to Iran. Everyone reading this undoubtedly knows the terrible events that followed: students took American embassy workers hostage for over a year as Iran declared America to be the "Great Satan," while evidence of US complicity in the Shah's oppression of his people became obvious, leading to a break in relations between the two countries that continues to worsen to this day.

During the early 90s, counterfeit $100 bills began to flood the Mideast, eventually spreading around the world. Known as "superbills" or "superdollars" by the US Treasury due to the astounding quality of the forgeries, these $100 bills became a tremendous headache not only for the US and its economy, but also for people all over the world that depend on the surety of American money. Several culprits have been suggested as responsible for the superbills, including North Korea and Syria, but many observers think the real culprit is the most obvious suspect: an Iranian government deeply hostile to the United States... and even worse, an Iranian government possessing the very same printing presses used to create American money.

If you've ever wondered just why American currency was redesigned in the 1990s, now you know. In the 1970s, the US rewarded an ally with a special machine; in the 1990s, the US had to change its money because that ally was no longer an ally, and that special machine was now a weapon used to attack the US's money supply, where it really hurts. As an example of the law of unintended consequences, it's powerful, and it illustrates one of the main results of that law: that those unintended consequences can really bite back when you least expect them.

Unprepared and unready

Sometimes unintended consequences occur from the best of intentions. For instance, Denny's is known for being open 24 hours a day, every day, always. The story goes that in 1998, for the first time in 35 years, Denny's decided to close its doors on Christmas, but there was a big problem: since Denny's was always open, many stores didn't have locks on the doors, so they couldn't close.

Likewise, email was invented in 1971 and was immediately embraced as a great way to communicate with folks all over the world. Since virtually everyone on the Net pretty much knew each other at the time, email was developed without a lot of safeguards. Spoofing the sender? Not a real issue. False headers? Why in the world would anyone want to do that? Purposely misspelled words in the subject to get past filters? First of all, what the heck are filters, and why would someone want to spell something weird to get past one?

It was a more innocent age, but that innocence was lost long ago, thanks to a trickle ... no, a stream ... no, a flood, an absolutely Biblical flood of garbage, scams, lies, ads, swindles, and just plain crap. In fact, it's gotten so bad that MX Logic, an antispam vendor, now estimates that 75 per cent of all email is spam, while in same article Postini Inc. jacks that number up to 88 per cent of all email. Think about that: only about 1 in 10 emails is legitimate. That's truly pathetic, almost enraging, and it's finally leading (slowly, oh so slowly) to necessary changes - not in the legal system, since the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 seems to have done virtually nothing to stem the tide - but in email infrastructure, to things like Microsoft's proposed Sender ID, Yahoo's Domain Keys, and Sender Policy Framework. Of course, at this time there's no consensus on the solution, and with patents and other contentious issues of so-called intellectual property acting as flies in the ointment, we may never reach a unified approach to the problem of spam. Naturally, that just helps the spammers. But they don't mind - they're busy helping each other.

Fast forward from 1971 to 2005. Would the inventors recognize the monstrosity they innocently unleashed upon the world?

Making things easier for the bad guys

Bruce Schneier, in his excellent Beyond Fear, reports that drivers in Russia have made interesting choices that have not always resulted in improving their situations. Crime is a large and growing problem in Russia, and one of the biggest threats is in the area of auto theft. To combat car theft, automobile owners installed car alarms. The result? Thieves waited until the owner approached the car to turn off the alarm, and then shot him, took his keys, and drove away in the car. Round one to the bad guys. Fine. So car owners quit using alarms, and instead installed security systems that made cars virtually impossible to hotwire. Ah ha! Round two to the good guys. Not so fast - since cars were extremely difficult to hotwire, thieves turned to carjackings instead, which is far more likely to result in injury or death to the car owner. Round three to the bad guys, and once again we see how "security" sometimes serves only to make things easier for the criminals.

A similar thing has popped up recently with one of my favorite bugaboos, DRM. I'm opposed to DRM for quite a number of reasons (if you're looking for an excellent list of those reasons, read Cory Doctorow's brilliant dissection of DRM), and now there's a new one: because it actually helps the bad guys.

Microsoft has touted its Windows Media Player (or WMP) as an industy- and DRM-friendly app that supports so-called "protected" media files. Basically, if you try to play a DRM-laden Windows media file, WMP checks to see if you have a valid license to do so. If you do, the file plays; if you don't, WMP heads off to a web site specified by the media file to acquire and download (and often purchase) a license.

But guess what? WMP doesn't check to see where it's going, or even what it's downloading, so individuals up to no good simply redirect it to sites where users end up with spyware, viruses, and other nastiness on their Windows machines. One researcher went ahead, pressed "Yes" to allow stuff to install, and then measured the results:

My computer quickly became contaminated with the most spyware programs I have ever received in a single sitting ... all told, the infection added 58 folders, 786 files, and an incredible 11,915 registry entries to my computer.

Amazing. Astounding. And another example of how some supposed "security" actually makes things easier for the bad guys - and makes things far worse for the good guys (and by "good guys," I mean users, not the companies pushing DRM).

Feel safer, act riskier

Social scientists have noticed an interesting pattern in human behavior over the years: it seems that the more safe and secure people feel, the more likely they are to engage in risky behavior. For proof of this, look no further than the Iroquois Theater in Chicago, opened for business in November of 1903. Fires at this time were a serious threat in theaters, due to the hot lights hung all around the stage in close proximity to backdrops and sets decorated with oil paints. Not to worry, though: the managers of the Iroquois advertised that they had put into place an asbestos curtain that would drop in case of fire, protecting the audience from the flames. Additional precautions common to theaters of the time that should have been put into place - things like firemen near the stage, and readily avilable fire hoses and extinguishers - were ignored because it was believed that the asbestos curtain was the ultimate in fire safety.

On 30 December 1903, a velvet curtain caught on fire as 1900 men, women, and children were packed in to see an afternoon performance of the musical "Mr. Blue Beard, Jr." The asbestos curtain was lowered, but got caught on a lamp and failed to close, exposing the crowd to flames and smoke. People rushed the doors in a panic, but the doors open inwardly, making them impossible to open. 603 people died in the fire - and the supposed asbestos curtain turned out to be a fake, since it too burned in the fire. Chicago's strict fire codes resulted from the fire, but it was a steep price to pay.

Computer viruses, worms, and spyware don't compare to death and destruction, but we see the same sort of human behavior - feeling safer, acting riskier - at work. For years, anti-virus software from third-party vendors has been included with most new Windows machines, and now both AOL and Microsoft are bundling A/V software with their products. Virtually all of the A/V software included with new PCs is time limited: it's free for 3 months, or maybe 6 months, and then the user has to buy it. You and I both know that few users actually go ahead and sign up... but many users still believe they're protected.

In fact, a recent study covered in The Register illustrates this tendency. Researchers looked at the computers of 329 volunteers. Nearly all of the machines were infected with viruses, spyware, and other garbage - one fellow had 1,059 spyware and adware programs on his machine! - yet about 75 per cent of those same users "reported believing that their PC is very secure or moderately secure". I'm not surprised.

And now Microsoft is adding "free" anti-spyware to the mix. Is this a good thing? On the one hand, sure - now people will have anti-spyware on their machines, and as regular readers know, it is badly needed, given the outrageous levels of spyware out there on the Net. On the other hand, how effective is this software going to be? We've seen increasing attacks on security software over the past year; on top of that, Microsoft's other security software - like its firewall - is hardly a shining paragon in its category. Further, it appears that history will repeat itself: Microsoft's ultimate aim is to charge for its bundled anti-virus and anti-spyware as part of a new A1 security subscription service.

What's the result? Users think they're protected - after all, their computer comes with anti-virus software! it comes with anti-spyware software! it's got a firewall! - but in reality they're still vulnerable. Given that mindset, why not use Internet Explorer? Why not use Outlook Express, or Outlook? Why not click on whatever appears in the web browser? Or in email? Why worry about security? They're safe and secure!

It's enough to make a security pro want to take off from work and go see a mid-day show.

The law of unexpected consequences is one that we simply can't afford to forget, and even though they're impossible to adequately plan for, we can minimize their effects. We have to worry about it, and we have to always ask the hard question: given this new thing foo, what are all the possible results that could happen? Brainstorm. Think out of the box. Don't be afraid to consider whatever crazy idea pops into your head. Trust me: it's never crazy enough.

My British readers at least have one advantage over us Yanks: it appears that so many people in the UK are taking Prozac that the drinking water now contains traces of the drug. Wait a little longer, and security pros in the UK won't be worrying about unintended consequences: thanks to one that I would have never thought of, they'll be blissfully unconcerned about them. And on it goes.

Copyright © 2004, SecurityFocus logo

Scott Granneman is a senior consultant for Bryan Consulting Inc. in St. Louis. He specializes in Internet Services and developing Web applications for corporate, educational, and institutional clients.

Further Reading

"Iroquois Theatre Fire of 1903". Chicago Historical Society (17 February 2004).
McNeil Jr., Donald G. "New C-Note Is Awaited In the Land Of Fake Bills". The New York Times (3 December 1995): 9.

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