Which Bits Are the Right Bits?By Adrian Lane
(The following post covers some rather esoteric bits of security philosophy, or what Rich has affectionately called “Security Jazz” in the past. Unless you are into obscure data-centric security minutiae, you will probably not be interested).
The trustworthiness of a digital asset is limited by the owner’s capability to detect incidents compromising the integrity of that asset.
This statement is absolutely correct and a really important point that is often overlooked. The problem is that most technologies which produce digital assets do not build tamper detection in, thus giving owners no way to detect integrity violtaions. And far too often people confuse interested party with owner of digital assets, as there can be many copies, each in the possession of a different person or group. It’s not that we can’t provide validation, because technology exists to provide assurance and authenticity.
Let’s look at an example: Who owns
syslog data? Is it the IT administrator? The security professional? An auditor? In my opinion, none of them do. The OS owns the
syslog, as it created the content. Much like you may think you own ‘your’ credit card number, but you don’t – it is something the issuing bank created and owns. They are the custodians of that number, and change it when they choose to.
syslog has no way to verify the contents of the log it creates over time. We take it on faith that it is unlikely a log file was corrupted or altered. If we need to verify integrity in the future, too bad. If you did not build in safeguards and a method for validating integrity when you created the data, it’s too late. The trustworthiness of the digital asset is limited to the owner’s capability to detect a compromise, and for many digital assets like
syslog, that is nil.
For most digital assets, it is sufficient that we use them every day, as this provides sufficient confidence in their integrity. Encryption keys are a useful example. If the keys are corrupted, especially in a public-key situation, either the encryption or decryption operations fail. We may keep a backup somewhere safe to compare our working copy to, and while that can be effective in the most common problem situations, it’s only relevant for certain (common) use cases. Digital assets have an additional challenge over physical objects in terms of generations. Even if we can verify a particular iteration of a digital object, we can have infinite copies, so we need to be able to verify the most current iteration is in use.
For digital assets like encryption keys, account numbers, access tokens, and digital representations of self, the owner has a strong vested interest in not sharing the asset, keeping it safe, and possibly even keeping redundant copies against future emergencies or for verification. There are several technologies to prove integrity, they are just not used much. I posted a comment on Richard’s blog to this effect:
The trustworthiness of a digital asset is limited more by the trustworthiness of the owner than tamper detection. An owner with desire of privacy and data integrity has the means to protect digital assets.
Richard’s premise is an important one as we very seldom build in safeguards to validate ownership, state, authenticity or integrity. Non-repudiation tools and digital escrow services are nearly non-existent. There simply is not enough motivation to implement the tools we have which can provide assurance.
Gunnar Peterson blogged on this subject earlier this week as well, taking a slightly more applied look at the problem. His statement that these issues are outside the purview of DLP are absolutely correct. DLP is an outside-in model. This discussion has more to do with Digital Rights Management, which is an inside-out model. The owner must attest to integrity, and while a 3rd party proxy such as a DLP service could be entrusted with object escrow and integrity certification, it would require an alteration of the DLP’s “discover and protect” model. DRM is designed to be part of the application that creates the digital object, and while it is not often discussed, digital object ownership is part of that responsibility. Attestation to ownership is not possible without some form of integrity and state checking.
I have seen select DRM systems that were interested in high integrity, but none were commercially viable. Which answers Gunnar’s question:
Our ability using today’s technologies to deliver vastly improved audit logging is, I believe, a worthwhile and achievable goal. But it’s fair to ask - why hasn’t it happened yet?
There has been no financial incentive to do so. We have had excellent immutable log technologies for years but they are only used in limited cases. Web application audit trails are an interesting application of this technology and easy to do, but there is no compelling business problem motivating people to spend money on retrofitting what they have. I would like to see this type of feature for consumer protection, built into financial transactions where we really need to protect consumers from shoddy corporate record-keeping and failed banking institutions.