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Commentary

What Government Can (And Can’t) Do About Cybersecurity

In his 2015 State of the Union address, President Obama introduced a number of interesting, if not terribly novel, proposals. Here are six that will have minimal impact.

People are calling 2014 the “Year of the Breach.” President Obama even focused on “cybersecurity” during his 2015 State of the Union address. I’m thrilled that security seems to have finally broken into the public consciousness. It’s a complex problem that requires an international effort, cooperation between public and private sectors, and careful consideration of the best path forward.

The mess we're in
I’ve written before about the staggering complexity of application security in the modern enterprise. So it’s not too surprising that the level of insecurity has grown over the past 20 years due to automation’s breakneck speed. The infographic below gives a sense of just how large and complex our codebases are. But like other extremely complex issues, such as healthcare, climate change and education, government intervention is a delicate matter that may do more harm than good.

The commercial sector produces the vast majority of the world’s software. But this market is failing to encourage the development of secure code. Why? Because for the most part, software is a black box. When you buy a car, you can have a mechanic check it out. But software is so complex that it can take months or years to determine whether it’s secure or not. Software is a “market for lemons” where nobody can get paid a fair market price for secure code. So our software ends up stunningly insecure.

I’m not trying to blame the victim here. Malicious attackers are the cause of breaches and we should do what we can to catch them. But given the inherent anonymity of the Internet, the “attribution problem” means that hackers are going to be part of our world for a very long time. This means we’re going to have to do more to protect ourselves.

Proposed government interventions
In his 2015 State of the Union address, President Obama introduced a number of interesting, if not terribly novel, proposals. Let’s quickly review a few of these ideas.

  1. Establish Federal breach notification legislation to unify the complex patchwork of state laws. This is a great idea in principle, although there will certainly be arguments about the details. For example, the 30-day limit is too long for consumers whose credit card number was stolen, yet too short for companies to ensure their systems are clean. I’d like to see this legislation expanded to cover all breaches, not just those that involve a privacy leak. If you’ve been hacked, even if no privacy breach occurred, your customers have a right to know the details.
  2. Expand information sharing with DHS through the ISACs. President Obama said, “we are making sure our government integrates intelligence to combat cyber threats, just as we have done to combat terrorism.” I’m not convinced that the techniques used to combat terrorists will work on hackers. While information sharing is important, it must be done carefully to protect victims of data breaches from further violation.
  3. Allow prosecutors to pursue anyone related to a hacking incident under Federal RICO statute. Given the difficulty of accurately identifying suspects, gathering evidence, and proving relationships in cyberspace, this approach seems ripe for abuse. There’s nothing wrong with aggressively pursuing cyber criminals, but we can’t forget about due process. How easy would it be to frame someone as a hacker if all that is required is a loose association? What if I friend the wrong person on Facebook or LinkedIn?
  4. Radical expansion of the CFAA. The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act is the federal anti-hacking law. Obama’s proposal expands the definition of unauthorized to include any time a user accesses information “for a purpose that the accesser knows is not authorized by the computer owner.” Basically if you know you’re hacking, then you’re guilty of a felony. This subjective standard does nothing to clarify what behavior is allowed under the statute and will lead to messy court cases and bad law.
  5. Even more CFAA expansion. Further, the proposal criminalizes your security tools if you know they could be used for illegal purposes. Another subjective standard, but even if we got past that, it would still be wrongheaded. To use the language of the Betamax decision, these tools have “substantial non-infringing use.” Disarming our limited supply of security researchers is nothing short of insanity.
  6. Allow government backdoor access to secure messaging applications like WhatsApp and Snapchat. British Prime Minister David Cameron and President Obama have called for mandatory backdoors so that intelligence agencies can scan for possible terrorist activity. The desire for this type of backdoor goes back to the Clipper chip, a notoriously flawed idea to escrow encryption keys with the government. Remember that attackers can still use “super-encryption” to defeat any backdoor scheme. That means that we all have to suffer Big Brother with very little benefit in terms of reducing terror.

How to really fix the software market
What strikes me about all these proposals is that they are not very likely to have a substantial effect on the software market. They are all reactive, attempting to target the bad guys rather than focusing on enhancing our own defenses. I think we are capable of producing radically more secure software than we do today. But we’re going to have to raise the bar for developers everywhere. The good news is that we don’t have to resort to making developers liable for vulnerabilities or other tricks.

We need to ensure that software buyers and sellers have the same information about what they are buying. We should start with minimally disruptive interventions such as requiring organizations to disclose information about how their software was designed, built, and tested and information about the people, process, and tools used. Imagine the “Security Facts” equivalent of “Nutrition Facts” label or “Material Safety Data Sheet” for software. Studies of labeling regimes have shown that even if consumers don’t use these labels at all, they still have a significant effect on the companies producing the products.

One thing’s for sure. Cybersecurity is on the government’s agenda for 2015.

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