Perimeter
10/2/2012
07:43 PM
Rich Mogull
Rich Mogull
Commentary
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The World Ended And No One Noticed

Not a single breach among the many in the past two weeks did enough damage to trigger an alarm

Catastrophic denial-of-service attacks by a foreign power against our largest financial institutions. An actively exploited 0day vulnerability in the world's most-used Web browser. The infiltration of one of technology's largest consumer and enterprise software vendors, resulting in the hijacking of their infrastructure to distribute digitally signed malicious software. The deep compromise of a major supplier of control software to utilities providers -- one with remote access to its customers control systems. New vulnerabilities in Java affecting all major platforms. The release of a tool that, for $20, can rapidly crack one of the most popular types of virtual private networks. The breach of an extremely common open-source Web application tool's servers and insertion of back doors.

All in two weeks.

If I wrote those words even a few years ago, everyone would assume they were a work of fiction or a desperate cry for attention from a delusional media whore. These days, they are so mundane as to barely garner a retweet. They are the equivalent of the local evening news filled with stories of poisoned restaurants, killer playground equipment, and kidnapped Chihuahuas. They register attention for a few hours, then fade into footnote.

Some of the stories above resulted in at least a modicum of attention from mainstream media, but it's clear that society, and even the infosec community, has mostly moved onto other things in the span of days, or even hours. Not that the conversation is dead; I'm sure we'll see plenty of conference presentations and blog posts on the Adobe breach, in particular, but nothing will really change, and no one will care outside the ever-present echo chamber.

Why? Because not a single one of these events resulted in enough loss to shift the needle. Not one of them resulted in enough damage, on a wide enough scale for anyone to change what they're doing. Society sacrificed a few lambs (or even wolves) and moved onto the next day.

And of even more interest (at least to me), none of this could have been stopped by those funny things we call "best practices."

The DDoS attacks? All major financial institutions already have basic DDoS protections. The IE 0day? No way to patch, and it was being exploited before any IPS had signatures. Malware signed with Adobe signatures? Yep -- AV seemed to do real well against that one in the targeted organizations. The SCADA hack? Well, let's just say best practices in that industry aren't necessarily the same as anyone else, barring a time machine set for 1989. Using PPTP? The best practice was that a long passphrase was still safe to use. PHPMyAdmin? Again- for users of the product, maybe only deeper outbound filtering than what's common today would have caught it.

Note that we hard-core, self-designated elite pundits could come up with all sorts of ways to stop the attacks, as long as someone else is paying for it. We know how to "do security right" and stop nearly all of these incidents, but not in any cost-effective way.

Our commonly accepted best practices, as recorded in books, codified in standards, and taught in our classes, are clearly dead. They fail to withstand the slightest digital hip check. But it doesn't matter, since clearly they are good enough to keep our overall losses, as an industry and a society, within acceptable levels. The math is easy -- we will never spend more than the absolute minimum needed to keep losses below the arbitrary line of acceptable.

There are plenty of targeted, sophisticated attacks, with victims prepared and naive alike. There is plenty of low-level crime. Some die, some live. But, overall, in the big picture, losses are still within the range of acceptable. And until that changes, nothing else will.

Rich Mogull is is founder of Securosis LLC and a former security industry analyst for Gartner

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