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Fear and Loafing at RSA

The outsourcing of security

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Comment It's the end of yet another RSA security conference, and we're tempted to trade our PCs for an abacus and hole up in the basement while the nightmarish robot invasion on mankind plays out. Malware, we were repeatedly told over the past five days, is lurking everywhere - in PCs, phones and online bazaars - and is waiting for the opportune moment to slip into our toasters and refrigerators.

Once the province of a ragtag bunch of nerds, computer crime is now a thriving business driven by hardened thugs. The creators of these root kits, bots and online scams bring a rigor and sophistication to their craft that rival even the most well-funded white hats.

This was the message the good guys were selling to show goers, while they talked in back-rooms to banks and retailers about ways to shore up public confidence in "secure" online shopping. Can you shop fear and court consumers at the same time? The RSA show wants to find out.

Most of what passed for news this year was data to support the all-too-familiar dystopian vision of hackers making life ugly for online users.

One panel, for example, touched on year-old research by John Heasman that showed the possibility of a rootkit (PDF) that could burrow so deep into the system bios of Linux or Windows machines that it could survive the reinstallation of the operating system. On another panel, Chris Boyd, whose Paperghost alter ego is fond of seeking out and bitch-slapping online bad guys, detailed software parasites that, once they take hold, remove rival malware and install Windows patches in order to protect their hosts. And Jens Hinrichsen, a marketing manager at RSA, said phishers spoofed 200 company brands in December, a 70 percent increase over the same month in 2005.

The deluge of facts and figures follows on the heels of last month's estimate by Vint Cerf that one in four computers connected to the net is a head-spinning, crucifix-pounding device possessed by Satan himself.

Even Eugene Kaspersky, the antivirus namesake and a respected authority in the online fight between good and evil, seemed resigned to security as an arms race. "It's getting more and more complicated to resist the bad guys," he told us while in town to hawk new products. "I don't think it's possible to fix the problem."

Of course, such views are not only correct, they're also unavoidable when one is talking to those whose livelihoods depend on information security. What's of significantly more interest are the views of those encouraging us to do more banking, buying and socializing online. While walking the floor at RSA, we searched for booths that might be hosted by representatives of MySpace.com, Bank of America, TD Ameritrade and the thousands of other interests who constantly assure us their online offerings will contribute to the betterment of mankind. Alas, they were largely no shows. All we found were smaller vendors eager to speak about the latest advances in their perimeter security device.

(Facebook, to its credit, sent a representative to speak on a panel about youth and the Internet, but rejected calls to employ technology that enables parents to track their children's comings and goings. It also objected to emailing Facebook participants to educate them how to stay safe online.)

So let's see if we have this right: Bank of America - which like the rest of its financial-services brethren offers only single-factor authentication - would rather be elsewhere proclaiming the convenience of online banking and leave the security outreach to the vendors. This arrangement - in which consumers rely more and more on products and infrastructure that treat security as an out-sourced afterthought - is well and good for the service providers and the security vendors, but it does little for the herd of everyday users who can't resist the siren's call to join the online revolution.

We were hesitant to use the term co-dependency to describe this unseemly state of affairs until Bruce Schneier opened the door to such pop-psycho lingo with a talk titled "The Psychology of Security." In it, he made a convincing argument that there is a wide gulf between the perception and reality that we are safe. Put another way: Security as an emotion, which is based on biases that have evolved over millennia, has little to do with the reality of security, which can be empirically measured by the probability of risks and the effectiveness of countermeasures.

People tend to exaggerate risks that are sensational, uncommon or sudden, such as terrorism, regardless of their mathematical likelihood. Similarly, they tend to downplay everyday risks, especially when they are well understood and evolve over time.

This inability to accurately assess risk is of immense value to marketers because it means they can make us feel safer not by decreasing the odds we are attacked, but by playing to certain well-established prejudices. This may explain why so many of us feel better running virus scanners that catch only a small fraction the malware clogging the net or using phishing toolbars that can also prove ineffective.

It may also explain why business marketing machines can't decide if the promise of a networked world represents the birth of endless opportunity or an unending stream of threats.

For us? Well, it's time to crawl back to the home PC, close the blinds, put on a bicycle helmet and nestle down with a 64 ounce Tang. It'll be a long wait until the RSA 2008 event when the security vendors can tell us how less secure we are despite their best efforts. The next 365 days will require prudence, courage and plenty of fluids. ®

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