Saturday, September 12, 2015

Crime, ignorance, ethics, and irony in the wake of the Ashley Madison affair

I'm hoping that the Ashley Madison hack will be a turning point in cyber-ethics, the point in time when we collectively decide that:
  • hacking companies and publishing the private information they have stored about people is morally reprehensible; 
  • lying to your customers about how you handle their data is unforgivable and needs to be punished; 
  • passing judgment on the sex lives of consenting adults is a fool's game; 
  • hacking people and products just because you don't like them is irresponsible and stupid; and 
  • hacking organizations to show they are not protecting data as well as they could be is a waste of skills and everyone's time - we know this already so creating more evidence does nothing to advance human knowledge or improve life on earth.
Sadly, a lot of the early media coverage and social discussion of the Ashley Madison hack showed few signs that we are at this hoped for ethical turning point. In light of this, I thought I would try to move the discussion forward with thoughts on five different parties to this whole mess.

1. The Perpetrators: So-called hackers

The people who recently stole and published gigabytes of data from the website need to be identified and made to answer for violating the privacy of the tens of millions of real people whose information is apparently in that data dump (the number of real people affected is hard to determine because the website's owners, Avid Life Media or ALM, made little effort to prevent people creating multiple fake accounts and are alleged to have created many such accounts themselves).

To be clear: there is nothing brave or noble or good about what was done by these "hackers" (whom it would be better and more accurate to call "data thieves"). Furthermore, any deaths or other harms that come from the theft and release of this data are on the heads of the person(s) who perpetrated these acts. They had no right, moral or otherwise, to carry out these acts.

By stealing and then publishing this data, the perpetrators have enabled countless scams, frauds, and other criminal acts, not least of which is blackmail. There is no legal, logical, or ethical analysis of their actions which can absolve them of responsibility for what they have done (and which cannot be undone, as well they know).

As for the rest of the world, most notably the world's media, claiming that people who are named in that data dump somehow deserve exposure is a totally untenable position, not least because many of those named didn't actually have affairs, or seek affairs, or even sign up to the site. Some people surfed the site out of curiosity or for titillation; and registering people on the site was a common prank, made possible by the irresponsible and frankly avaricious data handling practices of its owners.

Look for someone to sue the Ashley Madison data thieves for privacy violation, which is different from suing the company that failed to keep the secrets from which it made its money, Avid Life Media. The latter form of legal action is already underway to the tune of $578 million.

2. The Corporate Victim: Avid Life Media

Whatever you think of the business model of ALM, and I happen to think it sucked, they have been victimized by criminal perpetrators. If you condone the actions of those perpetrators you are appointing yourself judge and jury and enforcer of your own values, a course of action which, if replicated, poses a threat to society.

What if I dislike the way you do business? What if I think your employer needs a dose of "hacktivism" acted out as the righteous liberation of confidential data, which may happen to include, like it did in the Sony Pictures hack, the identity data of current and former employees, yourself included?

Are we really going to make the leap from justifiable anger at shady business practices to trashing cyberspace and turning it into a playground for disaffected bullies and jerks? What do we do when someone gets hurt? When someone takes their own life? Do we just dismiss them as collateral damage in our self-appointed war on whatever it is we don't like?

3. The Corporate Creeps: Avid Life Media

In their eagerness to make money, the folks running not only cut corners on security, they deceived people. Here's an example, an email that was sent to someone who had registered on the website and then asked to be removed. The email certainly reads like the person's request had been honored:

However, after the recent dump of data from ALM's computers, this person found their information was still there, more than five years after they thought it had been removed. At some point ALM actually introduced account removal as a paid service! I don't know when that was, but if you've spent any time studying privacy law and the widely held principles of fair information practices, it is simply staggering that a commercial organization would charge a person to delete data about them.

Of course, if you read the above email closely, it doesn't actually say the person's data has been erased. This is just one of many ways in which ALM used weaselly wording in an effort to make money however it could. While making apparently serious claims to guarantee customers an affair, the terms and conditions state "there is no guarantee you will find a date or partner on our Site or using our Service. Our Site and our Service also is geared to provide you with amusement and entertainment."

But when you take money for promising to remove people's information, and then don't? That's beyond weaselly, and many people have alleged that their data persisted on ALM's systems even after they had paid to have it removed. These deceptive practices are particularly heinous because of how Ashley Madison positioned itself, as both the epitome of discretion and the endorser and enabler of actions some portion of the population find to be immoral and worthy of exposure.

4. The Innocent Victims: Ordinary people

To be clear, meeting people online is not, in my opinion, immoral. I met my partner of 30 years through a dating site, one that was located on the pages of the San Francisco Bay Guardian. We used pen and paper and postage stamps not computers, but it was clearly the precursor to online dating services, with which I have no problem. I know numerous couples who, like my partner and I, met through a dating service of some kind and remain happily married and monogamous.

And as long as nobody gets hurt, I don't have a problem with adults enjoying non-monogamous inter-personal relationships. I'm pretty sure many monogamous people fantasize about affairs without having them, which may contribute to their staying in a relationship. And I expect a lot of Ashley Madison clients were doing just that. Of course, many people, married or otherwise, surfed the site out of curiosity or for titillation; and registering people on the site was a common prank, made possible by the irresponsible and frankly avaricious data handling practices of its owners.

5. The Big Loser: Society at large

Make no mistake, if we continue down this road - exercising a self-appointed right to publish confidential personal data without the data subject's permission - we all lose. And by all, I mean humanity, and by lose, I mean serious losses, not least of which are the potential benefits of responsible data sharing, from telemedicine to population healthcare and genetic cures, from energy efficiency to environmental protection and improvement programs, and so on.

It is my firm and considered opinion that the promised benefits of big data and the Internet of Things will not be realized if we humans don't learn to avoid the temptation to abuse the underlying technology for selfish and/or misguided purposes.

Which leaves us with this irony: the criminals who stole and published the Ashley Madison data, wrong as they were, may have given us an opportunity to take stock of the way we are using digital technology, revealing in the process how far we have yet to go in our efforts to enjoy its benefits while managing its risks.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

The cost of cybercrime: short version

The cost of cybercrime = $66.66.

That rather beastly number is a rough and very modest approximation of the cost of 18 minutes of my time, which is how long it just took me to make an online tuition payment to my school in England. Allow me to explain.

1. The tuition for my MSc in the Criminology Department at the University of Leicester is paid in multiple chunks of about $2,800 per chunk.

2. The university has a very convenient online payment system.

3. I am fortunate right now to have a credit card that can handle $2,800.

4. But I cannot charge $2,800 to the card via a website that is outside the US unless I spend 18 minutes on the phone with the bank to let them know this charge is okay (believe me, I've spent longer, and I've tried doing the transaction without the call enough times to know that this is typical, across multiple cards/banks).

5. That phone call is required because there is so much payment card fraud being perpetrated around the world today, most of which can be classified as cybercrime.

6. I work in cybersecurity. The hourly rate for an appropriately certified independent consultant in this field is likely to be at least $200. So 18 minutes of wasted time at that rate = $66.66.

Now multiply that by all the transactions that match the "must call us" category. Like when you're trying to surprise your wife with an upgrade as you're flying out of Heathrow (despite the fact that you told the credit card company you would be in England, still they required a call). At that rate the cost of cybercrime, just in terms of lost productivity, quickly adds up.

As for the rate calculation, I think I'm being reasonable. Back in the 1990s, our IT security consulting firm billed clients $2,500 per person per day, which was a combination of overhead and direct labor costs. The going rate today for specialists in this field, like the people brought in to respond to a big corporate data breach, can be as high as $900 per person per hour. I'm not saying my time is worth more than another person's, I'm just trying to put a number on the surcharge that cybercrime imposes on an otherwise efficient payment processing system. Time is money and spending 18 extra minutes to complete an online transaction is costly, whomever you are and however you look at it.

And this is nothing to do with my university. I have the same problem buying tickets for international air travel. And in some ways I'm glad I have the problem because it means my bank is protecting my account. But I'm also sad that the darker side of human nature has imposed these limits on our enjoyment of technology's many potential benefits (like studying at a university in another country).

Speaking of time, I've spent quite a bit of it studying the size and cost of cybercrime in my work as well as at school. I will be talking about this topic later this year at the Virus Bulletin Conference in Prague, as well as at this month's ISSA meeting in San Diego. Measuring the cost of cybercrime is not easy, indeed, it might be impossible. But I do think you can argue that the cost of cybercrime could get too high: if we reach a point where the cost of cybercrime deters the adoption of otherwise helpful technology, then we will have a much bigger problem than me getting grumpy on the phone with my otherwise very helpful bank.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Recent security research output

Good evening. Welcome. Just time for a quick update (with apologies to John Oliver and Last Week Tonight).

The following links are humbly presented as evidence that I am still very actively involved in researching security, mainly as it relates to crime and computers, a.k.a. cybersecurity and cybercrime.

1. Blog posts on We Live Security, of which there are many. These are conveniently listed here.

2. Webinars on Brighttalk, which include this introduction to risk analysis and this look at cybersecurity legislation.

3. Slide decks posted on Slideshare, like this one: Cybercrime and the Hidden Perils of Patient Data. I used that deck when talking to a group of about 40 dentists in San Diego. Here's a deck I used in security awareness sessions with about 400 petroleum plant workers in Texas. 

4. Snippets posted on Twitter by @zcobb, which may consist of quotes, statistics, pieces of information that I think will help people better understand security challenges. Here's an example:
So, while the rate of posting here on S. Cobb on Security has not been stellar of late, it's not because I'm not working on security problems.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Why Willie Sutton Robbed Banks: the real answer, and what it has to do with the #SonyHack

Willie Sutton was one of the most notorious American bank robbers of the twentieth century, spending two years on the FBI's list of Ten Most Wanted Fugitives.

Sutton is also the subject of one of the most frequently cited - and bogus - anecdotes in all of security (we're talking everything from physical security to information security and cybersecurity). At just about every security conference that I've attended, someone has used some version of the following:
"When a reporter asked the bank robber Willie Sutton why he robbed banks, Sutton replied: "Because that's where the money is.""

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Why the #SonyHack is not cyberwar

Here are two links that are essential reading for anyone tempted to invoke the term "cyberwar" to describe the hacking of Sony Pictures and its subsequent canceling of The Interview.

Book: The Tallinn Manual on the International Law Applicable to Cyber Warfare. This is the primer on the subject. Readable online at no charge.

Article: Cyberwar: reality or a weapon of mass distraction. Very readable paper by my friend and boss, security expert Andrew Lee (.pdf file).

Hopefully, politicians and commentators talking about the Sony Pictures hack will familiarize themselves with the facts and arguments laid out in the above publications before crying War!

Friday, December 19, 2014

Dear George Clooney - A word about cybersecurity

The following letter was written in response to remarks made by the actor and activist, George Clooney, in this article: Hollywood Cowardice: George Clooney Explains Why Sony Stood Alone In North Korean Cyberterror Attack

Dear Mr. Clooney,

I have great respect for your work sir, on film and off; I have a feeling we hold many of the same views on politics and economics and social justice. So it makes me sad to see how badly people have briefed you on the stark realities of cybersecurity. You seem to be under the impression that America can, with impunity, tell cyber criminals to "bring it on". You appear to be having difficulty understanding why big companies don't want to provoke hackers. Please allow me to explain.

In my own work I have seen the way in which multinational companies generate billions of dollars in profits by applying digital technology to improve productivity. My job has been, for the better part of two decades, advising companies on how to defend this highly profitable digital technology that they deploy.

Sadly, time and again, too many times to count, my fellow security professionals and I run into companies and company executives who reject our advice as too costly to implement, as an unreasonable burden on their business. When we say that the path they are taking comes with a large amount of risk, they either don't believe us or they say, "fine, we'll risk it."

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Continuing Pain of Cybercrime Explained in One Simple Graph

Let the line A show the rate at which we are increasing the following variables:
  • number of people with cyber skills
  • the amount of resources devoted to deterring cybercrime
  • the level of regulatory compliance
  • the national resolve to address the problem
  • international resolve to address the problem
Now let line B show the rate at which the following are increasing:
  • number of people on the Internet
  • number of things on the Internet (IoT)
  • the ease of use and accessibility of cybercrime tools
  • the number of people prepared to engage in cybercrime
Graph these over time and you can see C = the pain of cybercrime. The more we can increase the upward angle of A, while reducing the upward angle of B, the less cybercrime we will experience.

Just to be clear, globally speaking, C is a net negative. Cybercrime can be positive for criminals and their immediate economic environs, such as communities with limited options for legal employment of a gainful nature. However, C undermines the primary factors by which the upward angle of A can be increased: economic prosperity and political stability.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Is this your Sample Information Security Policy?

If you or your organization is the original creator of the following Sample Information Security Policy then I would like to hear from you: 
Every organization needs an Information Security Policy (although they may call it something different). When used appropriately the organization's whole approach to security will be guided by the policy document, a copy of which may well be requested during discussions around mergers, partnerships, and bids for new business. I have discussed the role and importance of security policy in several webinars, including this one directed at small and medium sized businesses.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Business Continuity Management: Sounds boring yet saves lives, companies, butts

Lately, I've been revisiting an area of information security into which I have dived deeply on several occasions over the years: Disaster Recovery, which is pretty much the same as Business Continuity Management or BCM, which includes Business Continuity Planning (BCP). Along the way I have assembled a list of high quality BCM resources and articles that folks might find useful (and available for free in most cases). You will find the list at the end of this article. Here's a scene-setting quote from one of the articles:
Disasters can strike at any time – often with little or no warning – and the effects can be devastating. The cost in human lives and property damage is what makes the evening news because of the powerful tug of human interest. Much less coverage, however, is given to the disruption, struggle and survivability of business operations. A study fielded by the Institute for Business and Home Safety revealed that 25 percent of all companies that close due to disasters – hurricanes, power failures, acts of terror and others – never reopen. (Disaster Preparedness Planning: Maintaining Business Continuity During Crisis, Disruption and Recovery)

Monday, April 14, 2014

Internet voting security: a scary tweet that reached 227,391 (even before Heartbleed)

Last month I tweeted a picture of some computer code that was part of an Internet voting system. That picture was re-tweeted so many times it reached more than 220,000 Twitter users. So, that had to be some pretty amazing code, right? Yes, as in amazingly frightening. Take a look, and then read on for a short explanation, and also a long one if you have the time.

A very clever computer scientist, Joe Kiniry, has been concerned about the security of Internet voting applications for some time. Joe is a former Technical University of Denmark professor, now Principal Investigator at Galois. In his research Joe noted this section of code in a program that was actually used for national elections in a European country.

The coder(s) have included a comment reminding themselves that security checks still need to be coded. My tweet suggested that this slide nicely illustrated the question of “what could possibly go wrong?” when it comes to Internet voting. Of course, the best answer to that question is: So much could go wrong you simply cannot use the Internet to elect public officials in a fair, honest, secret ballot!

Saturday, January 18, 2014

A call to action we ignore at our peril

You don't have to watch all of this video to know that Josh Corman has clearly articulated the massive scope of the IT security challenges we face today, and he has done it using language that even a CEO or a Middle School teacher can understand. I think the whole thing is worth watching, but if you cut to minute 15 you get to the crux of the matter:
"Our dependence on technology is growing faster than our ability to secure it....Issues of public safety and public concern require public discussion and public solutions...We are going to be the ambassadors of technical literacy."
My committment to my ambassadorial duties is my New Year resolution. Let the educational outreach begin.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Privacy Meter Redux

My prediction that data privacy is going to be a hot topic in 2014 was not surprising, but I am surprised at how many interview requests I've had so far, and we're barely halfway through January. Yesterday I found myself filling a last minute request to appear on a local TV channel. So I dusted off the trusty privacy meter.
The Privacy Meter
I created this learning device in 2001 and it went into my privacy book that came out in 2002. And it is just a visual device, an image to use as a tool when discussing privacy. (Feel free to use it, you have my permission, it is released to the public domain.)

The idea is to ask people to self-assess where they fit on a scale from closed book to open book. They do not need to reveal their "privacy reading" but they do need to think about whether or not it is fair to impose their position on others.

In other words, there is no correct reading, but plenty of scope to use the meter as a basis for discussion. For example, suppose you are an open book. Is it fair to make others become open book about their personal data if they prefer to be more of a closed book? On the other hand, if you think you are a closed book, are you prepared to provide information about yourself in order to authenticate your identity and establish trust?

Friday, January 10, 2014

Why there is so much cyber crime: #1 It's our spending priorities

With the number of potential victims of the Target data breach now topping 100 million, a lot of people who have never really given much thought to cyber crimes are asking: Why? How is it that criminals can commit computer crime on this scale with apparent impunity? After all, we pay taxes to be protected from the kind of scum that perpetrate crimes like this.

There are a number of answers to the question "why is there so much cyber crime?" But for me, the first answer on the list, the one that has been ignored by most of the talking heads who've been hashing over the scant details of the Target breach on TV, looks like this:
Despite all the hot air from politicians over the last 15 years, repeatedly pledging to do something about computer crime, the U.S. has failed to make fighting cyber crime a priority. I think these relative spending numbers make that clear. I would love to hear anyone argue that we are spending enough money to track down and prosecute cyber criminals right now.

An academic study published in 2012 put the total U.S. law enforcement spend on the fight against cyber crime at $200 million per year. I decided to be generous in my chart and rounded it up to $250 million.

The figure of $15 billion is often cited as the annual cost of the war on drugs, so apparently that is 60X more important than cyber crime. We know from the Snowden revelations that spy agencies spend over $52 billion per year, so apparently we think that what they do is 200X more important than fighting cyber crime.

How about we shave $0.5 billion off the intelligence agency budgets and spend it on bringing cyber criminals to justice? That's a 3X increase over what we spend right now. That might well be enough to put a significant number of perpetrators behind bars, including the ones we could afford to bring to the U.S. from other countries, thereby tipping the risk/reward equation against the bad guys and in the favor of honest citizens.

I'm writing to my representatives in Washington to tell them what I think our priorities should be. I'm sending them this chart. If you agree, I invite you to send it to the folks who are supposed to be representing you.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

My #4 personal privacy and security prediction for 2014: A BIG year for good/bad news

As we enter 2014 it is clear that two events in 2013 have rocketed data privacy and information security to the highest level of public awareness that these the complex topics have ever attained. I'm talking about the Snowden revelations and the Target breach.

For me, this surge in public awareness of the importance of data privacy and cybersecurity is both exciting and frightening.Why? Because 2014 is obviously going to be a big year for those of us who work in these closely intertwined fields, a year when more people than ever before will be concerned about securing their data, yet more distrustful than ever of the folks who are trying to help them do that (among whom I count myself).

Consider that I have spent the better part of 20 years writing and speaking about these issues, starting with computer security, then network security, system security, information assurance, data privacy, and now "cybersecurity." You could say that I have wanted nothing more than to make the world aware of the importance of these things, for the simple reason that, without such awareness, the true potential of digital technology will never be realized.

Let me put it a different way: Are you wondering where the flying cars are? Are you disappointed that in 2014 we don't yet have them, or transoceanic high speed rail service, or the handheld medical scanner that can diagnose the top 100 medical conditions in a single swipe? I believe we would have achieved these or similar technological marvels by now if it were not for the massive distraction of information insecurity.

I don't want to wander off into too many examples, but consider one: Towards the end of the last century email was poised to become a universal tool for managing transactions cheaply and easily. Then came the spam-plosion, a massive surge in unsolicited commercial email that rose to become 80% or more of all email and had Internet service providers (ISP's) buying new servers once a fortnight just to maintain legitimate service. Combine that with the inability of the major email providers to agree on improvements to email protocols, and you have the death of transactional email that is still hampering large slices of our economy, like banking, healthcare, government, and retail.

So the good news / bad news in 2014 goes like this:
  • Are most consumers now aware that cybercrime is a serious problem? Yes. Can a young working mother buy diapers at a discount store without fear of losing her identity, and all the money in her back account, despite the billions that have been spent on cybersecurity? No, because we have grossly under-funded the vital work of catching the cyber-scum at the root of that fear. 
  • Are most companies now aware that cybercrime is a serious problem? Yes. Can a company develop new products without fear of them leaking from their computers to a nation state agency and/or its clients? No, because it is possible that every piece of hardware and software you buy to build your dreams has already been hacked, back-doored, or otherwise compromised, thanks in part to your own tax dollars at work (see this article or the pictures here if you are not clear on this).
Now this next bit may sound self-serving, but I assure you it is not. I am employed by a company that sells security software, some of which requires root access in order to protect systems. However, the company doesn't pay me to sell this software, they pay me to think about security and privacy and explain of much of this stuff as I can to as many people as possible. The company has, in my considered opinion as a 20-year industry veteran, the very highest ethical standards. All of the people that I work with, in this company and in many of our leading competitors, are dedicated to eliminating the scourge of malware and other threats perpetrated by the world's cyber-scum. A fair number of us have been at this for 10 or 20 years or more. Yet today, in 2014, we are being asked: Are you helping the government spy on its people?"

The answer is no, but although part of me feels hurt and even insulted by this line of questioning, objectively-speaking I cannot object, particularly when I see these pages from a catalog of hardware and software crippled by the NSA, in other words, produced by my own government. I am sure that the people who developed these things thought they were doing the right thing, and only intended them to be used for righteous purposes like defending our nation. But the people in charge clearly failed to consider what would happen to the nation when the world found out about them.

I bet you a box of donuts that in 2014 at least one person will ask me where they can get a USB cable that is certified uncompromised. The fact that I don't have a good answer really bothers me. More people than ever before are going to be asking security professionals for help in creating secure systems, even as those professionals try to deal with NSA-fueled doubts about the very building blocks of such systems. One way or another, or both, it's going to be a BIG year.