Take A Deep Breath

In the midst of the recent surge of security hype and angst, a dose of perspective
The past few weeks in the information security world have been some of the most visible, if not interesting, we've seen in a long time. From China's BGP routing incident, to WikiLeaks, to McDonalds, to Gawker, we've seen a spate of high-visibility incidents thrusting security to the forefront of the public consciousness. In the midst of this feeding frenzy we, the security industry, seem as likely to eat our own as we struggle to balance truth and context with the inevitable media hype.

Watching and reading the articles, tweets, and blog posts in highlights a problem I think we often struggle with as a collective group perspective. It's not an issue that's even exclusive to our industry; it's so common it's known as a standard cognitive bias called dformation professionnelle. The tendency to see the world through the eyes of your profession and forget the broader context.

This isn't an accusation; trust me, I struggle with career-induced bias on a daily basis. But it's important to take a step back sometimes, review our reactions, examine the context, and reset our perspective. There are a few specific examples from the past weeks I think well-highlight what I mean:

* Weak passwords on a throw-away site aren't a big deal. Who cares if 83 percent of Gawker readers use 123456 as their password? Unless they are using the same password for their email or financial accounts it doesn't matter. At all. The users aren't all stupid, they just don't consider Gizmodo comments something worth dedicating any mental resources to protect. Yes, some percentage of the users are really exposed due to password reuse, but in the end I suspect the number of people detrimentally affected will be fairly limited.

* No, 15 percent of Internet traffic wasn't routed through China, and the overall security exposure to the US was likely minimal. And yes, BGP routing mistakes happen all the time. But when such an error originates in a nation that we know for a fact is actively penetrating our systems, it's okay to be suspicious. And if a little hype gets us funding to secure our routing, so much the better.

* The preface "cyber" isn't evil, even when it's overused. It's cool, people like it, and it's part of the common lexicon. That said, a group of dedicated prankster activists executing a distributed denial of service attack against some businesses doesn't meet any definition of war.

* Someone always has a network that is bigger, more complex, or with different business/mission requirements than yours. It's easy to shoot from the sidelines, I do it all the time, but never assume even a "Security 101" control will work everywhere, for everyone. Not that we should excuse stupid mistakes, but especially in larger environments the issues around even seemingly minor changes are nearly seizure-inducing. (That might seem hypocritical coming from an analyst, but there's a difference between my writing for a broad audience and direct advice to individuals).

* You can't eliminate incidents like WikiLeaks. Yes, the DoD made Bradley Manning's crime easier than it should have been due to some lax controls, but even with all the best security in place leaks like this will happen. I don't care how much DLP or portable media blocking tools you put in place.

* Losing real names and a bunch of emails in a big phishing attack like the one against McDonalds' provider isn't great, but it isn't like not having that info ever slowed the bad guys down.

Security isn't failing. Banks are still in business (despite their best efforts), we can still shop on Amazon, and at least a few computers out there aren't pwned zombies selling Viagra. The real question we need to ask ourselves isn't if we've "won", but whether the percentage of the aggregate of fraud (online and off, financial and otherwise) is demonstrably bigger? If it's historically been at 2 percent and now it's at 5 percent, then we are failing. If it's about the same, perhaps we just have a migration from offline fraud to online. But at the end of the day the bad guys are going to get their 2 percent, like they always have.

Yes, it's a drag on the system and yes, we all collectively pay for that and it would be great to reduce it. But ultimately although the tactics have changed, the outcome remains the same, regardless of what the punditry tries to tell you.

Rich Mogull is founder of Securosis LLC and a former security industry analyst for Gartner Inc. Special to Dark Reading.