Black Hat: Security Offers Illusion Of Control

Security evangelist Ian Angell offers up his take on network security and suggests that "only neurotics think they can use technology to control the real world."
Computer security doesn't exist, but people will buy it anyway.

That was more or less the message delivered by Ian Angell, professor of information systems at the London School of Economics, at the Black Hat conference in Las Vegas on Wednesday morning.

"Why do we use technology? Angell asked. "Technology imposes structure on our actions, which gives us a tenuous handle on uncertainty."

The thing is, as Angell sees it, that structure is unreliable and offers only the illusion of control.

"Technology is intrinsically statistical, and that means that it cannot deal with the singularities that emerge spontaneously when it merges with human systems," Angell explained.

Angell, you see, is a pessimist. "Whenever I smell flowers, I think funeral," he said. And that colors his view of technology as a means of security.

"Computers cannot cope with ambiguity and complexity," he opined. Perhaps rightly so, given the litany of snafus and unexpected consequences that emerged in his anecdotes. Does that make him a realist?

Consider the Facebook user jailed for several days after the social network's automated system sent a friend request to his former spouse in violation of a restraining order.

Consider the insurance agency that insisted that on adding a guard dog as a condition to insure a valuable stuffed animal collection, only to find out too late that the mandated Doberman, trained using stuffed animals, thought that it was supposed to shred rather than guard. Consider the case of Brandon Mayfield, linked to the 2004 Madrid train bombings as a result of a fingerprint technology glitch, a mistake that cost the FBI $2 million.

In Angell's world, technology goes wrong. And somehow that's the world we're living in, a world where, as Angell put it, there are no solutions, only contingencies.

"Only neurotics think they can use technology to control the real world," said Angell. "As for us cynics in the computer security business, we'll be laughing all the way to the bank."