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Bruce Schneier on attack trends

Filed under: Blogging,Security — kees @ 9:20 pm

On Wednesday I attended Bruce Schneier‘s short talk about the trends of online attacks. I figure I need to take his talk with at least a small grain of salt. While he has a reputation to maintain, he also works for a security outsourcing company. That in mind, I still like reading his blog, and I enjoyed hearing him talk.

The main take-away from his talk was that attackers are more rarely “hobbyists”, and more commonly criminals. (i.e. there is profit motive rather than an interest in boasting rights.) In the same vein, worms are becoming more sophisticated, quieter, and increasingly effective, while losing their cleverness. (Criminals don’t care if their worm is lame, they don’t care if they ripped off someone else’s worm, they care that their worm is staying undiscovered and is making them money. As a result, whole families of slightly different worms are appearing.)

One thing he said, that I have a hard time believing, and if true is pretty scary, is that cyber-crime profits are now exceeding drug profits. I would love to understand what the sources for that statistic are. Beyond just phishing, beyond worms waiting for you to authenticate to banks before emptying your wallet, there is even small-scale Denial-of-Service extortion. Generally, it’s against places that are themselves on tenuous legal ground, like offshore gambling sites. “If you don’t pay us $X, we’ll DoS you again!” It’s protection money online. Wild.

The market for blackhat exploits is growing. This is reducing the time between vulnerability announcement and exploit usage. Unfortunately, in the Microsoft world, an opposite trend is happening: patch speed is slowing due to their needing to test more and more configurations, staying infinitely backward compatible. At least this has an upside that their patches are generally better and corporations are learning to trust auto-update systems. (And I think this kind of brain-share is actually good for all OS vendors.)

The commoditization (and therefore homogenizing) of hardware and software means that everyone runs the same stuff. Even the criminals. Before, generally only the various corporations had old AS/400 machines and no one really wrote attacks against them. Now stuff runs on PCs.

Overall, the attacks online are becoming increasingly more damaging financially (“criminals are good at what they do”). The volume of attacks come from the open Internet, but the more successful attacks come from inside a private network. More worms are simply waiting for opportunity instead of beating on a network.

While some of the crime organizations have been taken down, there are still large bot networks that are continuing to grow in size even though they have no controller any more. This is truly something out of dystopic sci-fi. I don’t know why, but while I find the idea of full AIs reasonable, and totally non-intelligent systems reasonable, I find half-AI systems really creepy. They just keep doing some semi-smart thing over and over waiting until mommy comes back to tell them to do something else now.

He wound down discussing his worries for the future. He wants people thinking about VoIP security now. (Worms sniff your typing and packets already, soon they can sniff your voice.) He hinted at Digital Restrictions Management without actually saying DRM. (“Who owns your computer?” To which I thought, “I do. This is why Free Software is so important.”)

In closing he talked about security being more about usability than technology. I took that to mean “the Art of security is more about usability than technology.” I can have infinite security by just unplugging something. But that’s not very artful. Towards the goal of successful (artful) security, he wants to see service providers be ultimately liable for the financial damage. He figures this puts the motivations in the right place. It seems like the right thing to me (if credit card companies want to avoid it, it must be good for me) but I suspect there is something hidden deeper that may cause greater harm. I can’t put my finger on it, so for now, I’ll agree. :)

At one point he gave a nice view into his own world, in which he has to go twice a year and disinfect his own mother’s computer of worms. The cobbler’s childrens’ feet…

The end of the session was a book signing (Counterpane gave out gratis copies of Schneier’s new book “Beyond Fear“). I showed my geek by having brought a copy of “Applied Cryptography” for him to sign too. For which he was geek-prepared, and tossed in a cryptogram. Even though he does this for lots of people (Google told me later), it was fun to see it in my book; I wasn’t expecting it.

© 2006, Kees Cook. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.
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