Newcomers to the world of Schneier will be surprised at how funny he can be, especially given a subject commonly perceived as quiet and dull. Whether he's analyzing the security issues of the rebels and the Death Star in Star Wars or poking fun at the giant software and e-commerce companies that consistently sacrifice security for sexier features, he's one of the few tech writers who can provoke laughter consistently. While moderately pessimistic on the future of systems vulnerability, he goes on to relieve the reader's tension by comparing our electronic world to the equally insecure paper world we've endured for centuries--a little smart-card fraud doesn't seem so bad after all. Despite his unfortunate (but brief) shill for his consulting company in the book's afterword, you can trust Schneier to dish the dirt in Secrets and Lies. --Rob Lightner
TECHNOLOGY YOU By Stephen H. Wildstrom
THE SECRETS LIES OF CYBER-SECURITY
A computer virus shuts down your corporate e-mail for a day. Hackers deface your Web site with pornography. The need to share data with customers and vendors exposes critical corporate information to online theft. With your business ever more dependent on safe use of the Internet, security savvy has become as important as understanding marketing or finance.
Such savvy, however, has been hard for non-techie executives to acquire. Books and articles on security generally came in two equally useless varieties: incomprehensible or sensationalized. Remember all those books on how the Y2K bug would end civilization as we knew it? Now, Bruce Schneier, a highly respected security expert, has stepped into the breach with Secrets Lies: Digital Security in a Networked World (John Wiley Sons, $29.99). The book is of value to anyone whose business depends on safe use of
e-mail, the Web, or other networked communications. If that's not yet everybody, it soon will be.
Schneier brings strong credentials to the job. His book Applied Cryptography is a classic in the field, and he is one of t he creators of the Twofish algorithm, a finalist in the U.S. government's competition for the Advanced Encryption Standard. Schneier serves as chief technology officer of Counterpane Internet Security (www.counterpane.com), which manages computer security for corporations.
Although this is a book for the general reader, it's not always easy going. But Secrets Lies requires no prior knowledge of computer or security technology and should be accessible to anyone who is willing to put in a little effort. For example, Schneier explains encryption, essentially a mathematical process, without resorting to a single equation. While Schneier is not an elegant writer, he has a nice ability to use analogies to make the obscure understandable.
The book has two main thrusts. First is Schneier's mantra: "Security is a process, not a product." Anyone who promises you a hacker-proof system or offers to provide "unbreakable" encryption is selling you snake oil. There is simply no way to wave a magic wand over a system to make it -and keep it- secure. Second, Schneier says, getting security right is hard, and small mistakes can be deadly.
Risk Management. Schneier backs his opinions with real-world examples. For instance, Hollywood was terrified of piracy and worked hard on a scheme to encrypt digital videodisks so that only authorized players could read the disks. The encryption would have been hard to break, but hackers didn't have to do it. A design flaw made it easy to steal the decryption keys from the software players supplied with PC's. Similarly, most e-commerce sites use a technology called SSL to protect transaction data from online snoopers. SSL works fine, but some e-tailers left customers' credit card information in files where hackers could swipe it.
The last third of the book is most valuable to managers. In it, Schneier discusses the process by which people should assess security vulnerabilities and decide what to do about them. His central point: Computer security is basically risk management. Banks and credit-card companies can tolerate a considerable amount of credit risk and fraud because they know how to anticipate losses and price their services accordingly. That's good, since zero tolerance would put them out of business. Similarly, seeking perfect security would make a system useless because anything worth doing carries some risk.
Unfortunately, the art of computer security has not progressed to the point where Underwriters Labs can certify that a firewall can protect you against attack for two hours, as can be done for safes and fire doors. But with the crude tools that are available, managers have to decide what they are trying to protect and how much they are willing to spend, both in cost and convenience, to defend it. This is a business issue, not a technical one, and executives can no longer leave such decisions to techies. That's why Secrets and Lies belongs in every manager's library. (Business Week, September 18, 2000)
As an editor at a computer publication in the early 1990s, I hired a freelance security expert to evaluate anti-virus software. After extensive testing he faxed the results; unfortunately, the fax went to one of my publication's direct competitors. His gaffe
demonstrated why we will never see fail-safe computer security: human error.
That premise emerged as a central theme of a new book written by the same freelancer, now a leading security expert. "Secrets and Lies: Digital Security in a Networked World" (John Wiley Sons, 2000, $29.99), by Bruce Schneier, is a compelling brief on the industry's most obsessive anxiety.
It's not a story for the faint of heart. Schneier's scary world makes the Wild West--to which the Internet is often compared--look like kindergarten. (For every gory detail on computer crime, check out "Tangled Web," by Richard Power; Que, 2000, $25.)
"Secrets and Lies" is well-timed on the heels of an apparently unstoppable wave of security foul-ups, hacks and government surveillance revelations. The best-known attacks--such as the breach of Microsoft's corporate network revealed last week, disruptions of Yahoo, EBay and other top Web sites early this year, and the "Love Bug" virus, which infected millions of computers--made headlines.
Paranoids have delighted in recent revelations about "Echelon," the government's once super-secret system for monitoring worldwide voice and data communications, and the FBI's "Carnivore" technology, which sniffs millions of supposedly private e-mail messages.
A burgeoning underground of Internet vandals, network nihilists, data thieves and those who probe vulnerabilities as an intellectual exercise begs a scorecard to distinguish "hackers" from "crackers," "white hats" from "black hats."
"Script kiddies"--wannabes who use turnkey hacking tools they find posted on the Web--may be emerging as the biggest threat.
Schneier explains the reasons for this grim scenario in simple truths:
* In the hacking wars, technology favors offense over defense.
* Complexity is the enemy of security, and the Internet is the mother of all complex systems.
* Software is buggy. Experts suggest that every 1,000 lines of computer programming code contains between five and 15 mistakes, some of which inevitably open security holes. Consider that Windows 2000 shipped with some 63,000 known bugs and incompatibilities.
* People are often foolish. Early this month the National Institute of Standards and Technology adopted an encryption
algorithm (a mathematical formula used to scramble digital data) that it said would take more than 149 trillion years to crack. Then again, if you use your name or the word
"password" as a decoding key--typical among lazy computer users--a neophyte
hacker would need about five minutes.
Any security scheme can and will be subverted. Little wonder that software licensing agreements specifically disclaim responsibility for the product working as advertised.
It's not hard to imagine why security software developers would be short on confidence--their products are nearly always developed in a vacuum.
"A common joke from my college physics class was to 'assume a spherical cow of uniform density,' " Schneier writes. "We could only make calculations on idealized systems; the real world was much too complicated for the theory. Digital system security is the same way"--probably reliable in the lab, always vulnerable in the wild. Part of the problem is that conventional thinking about Internet security is drawn from the physical world, where some kinds of security are "good enough."
"If you had a great scam to pick someone's pocket, but it only worked once every hundred thousand tries, you'd starve before you robbed anyone," Schneier writes. "In cyberspace, you can set your computer to look for the one-in-a-hundred-thousand chance. You'd probably find a couple dozen every day."
A big part of the solution, he writes, is to recognize that "security is a process, not a product." Virus-protection software and "firewalls" designed to guard private networks can be effective only as part of a comprehensive strategy about security. This means that network users--as individuals or employees--must understand their role in protecting information--instead of naively relying on software tools to work without
So how to reach people with this geeky material? Schneier, founder of Counterpane Internet Security Inc. in San Jose, peppers the book with lively anecdotes and aphorisms, making it unusually accessible. But I still wouldn't have judged it suitable for the average reader. So I wasstonished to find "Secrets and Lies" recently ranked 68th on Amazon.com's sales list. Unless all the buyers are hackers, that's a hopeful sign.
So take Schneier's good advice, but don't panic: Like security, fear-mongering is a process. Exploiting that fear has become a growth industry. Hundreds of security companies shamelessly hype every new virus or hacking to pump up business. Consider that while it's theoretically possible to bring down much of the Internet with a
single orchestrated hack, the most damaging episodes so far have affected only a few sites out of millions. The worst ones, such as Love Bug, though genuinely harmful,
fade in a couple of weeks.
Dopey business plans are a bigger threat to the "dot-com" world, and the sale of personal data by marketers a bigger threat to individuals,than hackers will ever be.
Monday, October 30, 2000, 'Lies' Propagates One Truth: No One Can Get a Lock on Net Security
Los Angeles Times by Charles Piller
A Security State of Mind
It's not encryption. It's not a password. It's not connecting through a VPN or an anonymizing service. Security means vastly different things to a national government, a...