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[ISN] Security: getting the facts about cybergeddon
From: InfoSec News (isnc4i.org)
Date: Wed Mar 17 2004 - 01:37:44 CST
By Tim Mullen
When everyone in the security world has something to sell, it's harder
than ever to get straight answers about genuine threats.
A client called me a few weeks back cursing like Joe Pesci with
Tourette's Syndrome. He had found himself defending against a
maelstrom of security issues that had "become unmanageable", as he put
This was right at the time that we were dealing with yet another round
of email-borne worms and viruses, while simultaneously drowning in
urgent doomsday warnings about the ASN.1 issue - presented as the "Oh
my Lord in Heaven" vulnerability by everyone and their grandmother.
My client was absolutely livid, and completely fed up with someone...
he just didn't know who. He was mad at the virus writers for launching
malicious code, he was mad at his users for executing malicious code,
he was mad at Microsoft for writing vulnerable code, he was mad at
eEye for discovering vulnerabilities, and he was mad at me just
because I was a security guy. After letting him know that I double my
rate when I have to deal with angst, he dropped the last bit.
But after talking with him for a while, it became clear that his major
issue was with the security community in general. He really had no
idea what issues were most important or what issues to deal with
first. He had no real guidance when it came to working out what the
real threats to his business were, or what the genuine associated
The problem was that everyone had something different to say about
what they thought was really important.
He called me to cut through the crap. I'm what he calls a "special
project" vendor. You see, they have a security vendor, but they call
me when they want to get things done. I'm not tooting my own horn;
that is not my point. My point is that they have contracts with other
vendors, but when it comes down to production, they bypass all the
politics and red tape to get me (or people just like me) in there to
actually get problems solved. Even security has become so
commercialised and politicised that customers are being forced to go
outside normal channels.
In my customer's case, he did not know where to turn. Many "security
experts" were touting the ASN.1 vulnerability discovered by eEye as
the most serious security hole in the Windows line-up. Some
professional organisations recommended that companies stop what they
were doing and patch all systems without regard to cost. Some called
it the "mother of all vulnerabilities".
That hype is what bit my client in the rear. Someone On High ordered
him to patch everything - priority one. But in the meantime, all hell
was breaking loose from variants of MyDoom, NetSky, and the rest of
the current batch of nasties. Yes, the ASN.1 vulnerability is serious,
but I'll continue in the vein of my worm predictions and say that we
won't be seeing any global events from this one. It just doesn't have
the right stuff.
I've frequently used this space to chastise media and security pundits
for their misrepresentation of the actual threat posed by some
vulnerabilities. With the ASN.1 vulnerability, it is not so much that
facts were misrepresented, it's just that the energy that went into
the warnings was out of line with the danger: everyone just jumped on
the Chicken Little bandwagon because it was an opportunity to bash
Redmond. It wasn't pro-security, it was just anti-Microsoft.
Vulnerability clearing houses like CERT used to be well-regarded
arbiters of what matters in security. But now CERT has a reputation of
selling off vulnerability information to private parties, and
researchers like David and Mark Litchfield have stopped bringing the
organisation into the loop. There is not much point in having such an
organisation if folks like the Litchfields won't play with you.
We are really just getting a handle on the stuff of security, and yet
much of it is becoming superficial. Many of the products and services
today remind me of those little "Sealed for your Safety" wrappers on
today's products. They don't give you any "real" security, and what's
even worse is that the only indication the security mechanism exists
is the mechanism itself. Rip off the "seal", and not only is it gone,
but so is the message that tells you it was there in the first place.
I know everyone has something they are trying to sell, but when the
end result is confusing the customer, we need to rethink the way we
market our products, and the way information in general is being
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