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Security analogies: the key to educating laymen

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Protecting against web application threats using SSL

Comment The following is a written version of a speech I gave at The Open Solutions Summit (AKA LinuxWorld NY) in New York City in February. It's long, but I think you will find it interesting. If you want to get to the website I announced, jump to the last section.

I'm not a sports guy, by any means. I leave that up to my brother, who's the equipment manager for the New York Jets. Even when we were kids, I'd much rather read than play sports, and watching them was sheer torture; my brother was of course the exact opposite. Anything sports-related was total heaven for him.

Never let it be said, however, that I can't find the truth in a sports anecdote. One of my favorite sports stories concerns Frank Layden, of the Utah Jazz, and his alleged comment about a former player. The story goes that Layden was having problems with this player, so he took him aside and said, "Son, what is it with you? Is it ignorance or apathy?" The player thought a moment and then replied, in all sincerity, "Coach, I don't know and I don't care."

I was thinking about that story a few months ago when I was asked during a Q&A why it is that people don't care about security very much. Oh, they might say they care, and profess actual concern, but the actions of most folks speak otherwise. There are many answers to that question, but two of the biggest culprits come down to the problems Layden raised: ignorance and apathy.

Ignorance

Keep in mind that ignorance doesn't mean stupidity. Instead, ignorance means lack of knowledge. If you don't know fire burns and you put your finger into a flame, that's ignorance; if you know fire burns but you put your finger into the flame anyway, well, that's stupidity (which brings to mind one of the best lines from a great movie, The Princess Bride: "Ha ha! You fool! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders! The most famous is never get involved in a land war in Asia, but only slightly less well-known is this: never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!").

As I've spoken to groups around the country and taught classes at Washington University in St Louis over the years, I've run into ignorance. Students have said things like "I had no idea there was such a thing as open source" and, "I learned that I need to take care of all the security problems on my computer". I don't condemn the people who said those things; they honestly didn't know that open source software existed, and they really didn't know what they needed to do to keep their computers safer. The important thing, however, is that they knew now, that they had been educated.

Indifference - or apathy - is an issue, but I believe Socrates was correct when he said "The only good is knowledge and the only evil is ignorance." In other words, Socrates believed that if a person knew the right thing to do, he more than likely would do it. To bring that maxim into the modern age, if someone knows that she should use anti-virus software, she's far more likely to do so; in fact, she probably will.

I've written many articles for SecurityFocus that try to educate Joe and Jane Computer user: "A Home User's Security Checklist for Windows". "Pass the Chocolate". "Time to Dump Internet Explorer". "Infected In Twenty Minutes". "The big DRM mistake". "Surprises Inside Microsoft Vista's EULA". I can only do so much, however. As I've pointed out many times, those who have knowledge about computers and security - in other words, you, yes, YOU, the person reading this column - need to educate the ignorant, which is everyone else.

"OK, great idea, Scott," I know some of you are saying right now. "But how?"

Reducing the cost and complexity of web vulnerability management

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