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."

Thomas Claburn, Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

August 6, 2008

2 Min Read

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."

About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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