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Bad security products thrive on confusion

High-drama obscures real risks, warns Schneier

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The information security market is riddled with mediocre products because buyers are often sold on a story rather than having enough information to make a rational choice, a security expert has said.

Bruce Schneier, founder and chief technical officer of BT Counterpane, said many security products offered the feeling of being secure rather than actual security. Vendors can't be trusted to give a reliable precis of a product's capabilities, he warned.

The field of information technology security is so complex that purchasing decisions are based on feelings and hunches rather than reality, a process that suppliers play into, in what Schneier described as "security theatre". Products sold through this process often either fail to live up to their promises or address a threat that is overstated.

"For every supplier with a good product or service, there is at least one more out to make a quick buck before customers find out," Schneier told delegates to the RSA security conference during a keynote presentation on Tuesday. "There's a problem when feelings and reality are out of whack."

The presence of bad products diminishes trust in the market as a whole over the long-term, while leaving end-users with a false sense of security.

The same problem can apply to product categories as well as individual items of kit. Firewalls, for example, are ubiquitious but often poorly configured. On the other hand, email security products work well but enjoy little market penetration, Schneier said.

Part of the difficulty is that human beings are inherently irrational, finding it difficult to weigh a balance between risks and costs and behaving irrationally on the basis of perceived fears. "The human brain is still in beta testing. There are all sorts of patches and workarounds in there," Schneier joked. ®

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