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Ranum’s Right, for the Wrong Reasons

By Adrian Lane

Information Security Magazine’s November issue is available. In it is an interesting rehash of the security monoculture debate between Bruce Schneier and Marcus Ranum some 8 years ago. Basically the hypothesis was that if all your software is provided by one vendor, a single security vulnerability means everyone is vulnerable. The result is a worldwide cascade of failures. The term “domino effect” was thrown around to describe what would happen.

I remember reading that debate when it first came out, but the most interesting aspect of this discussion is actually how much the threat landscape has changed in 8 years. Much of the argument was based on a firm with a culture of insecurity. Who knew Microsoft would take security seriously, and dramatically improve their products? Who knew that corporate espionage would be a bigger threat than DDoS? And that whole Apple thing … total surprise.

All in all I tend to agree with Ranum’s position, but not because of the shaky points he raised. It’s not because everyone patches at different rates, or that some systems are “loosely coupled” or in “walled gardens”, or even that the organism analogies suck. It’s because of two things:

  1. Resiliency – Marcus’s point that the first part of the scenario – hacked systems every week for the last 15 years – is spot on. But the Internet continues to rumble along, warts and all. I don’t think this has so much to do with the difference in the way servers are managed, it’s that companies are a lot better at disaster recovery that they are security. Recover from tape, patch, and move on. We know how to do this. We got hacked, we fixed the immediate problem, and we moved on.
  2. Vulnerabilities – Even if we had very small communities of software developers, is there any reason whatsoever to believe security would be better? Just because we don’t have write-once, exploit-everywhere malware, it does not mean that all the smaller vendors would not have been hacked. Just because Microsoft was a large target does not mean Adobe was any more secure. Marcus has published research on how people studiously avoid accepting blame for stupid decisions and are likely to repeat them. Even without a monoculture, classes of vulnerabilities like buffer overflow, SQL injection, and DoS are common to all software. And classes of people persist as well. It would take hackers more time and effort for every system they attack in a diversified model, but they would still be able to hack them. But the goal is usually stealthy theft of data, so the probability of detecting compromise also falls.

We did see millions of web sites, applications, and databases compromised over the last 8 tears. And we know many more were never made public. And we have no way to calculate the cost in terms of lost productivity, or the damage due to corporate espionage. But recent APT attacks using unpublished Microsoft 0-day attacks, such as the recent Stuxnet attack, show it does not matter whether it’s mainstream software from a single large vendor, or obscure SCADA software nobody’s ever heard of. Every piece of software I have ever encountered has had security bugs. Monoculture or otherwise, we’ll see lots of vulnerable software. I could offer an organism based analogy, or a parable about genetics and software development, but that would probably just annoy Marcus more than I already have.

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Comments

There’s another effect at play - the massive multiculture of unmanaged or poorly managed systems can provide some degree of protection to the managed multiculture - simply by presenting an easier target.

If your criminal motivation is to “own” systems to run your botnet, there’s no need to look for harder targets. If your goal is data extraction, a platform monoculture arguably makes it slightly more difficult than a multiculture - the multiculture has a greater potential attack surface to find a vulnerability in any one of the platforms.

But in either case, the motivation is not to knock out the systems, but to exploit them for gain.

In the event of a true cyber-war, by which I mean aggressive destructive attacks against a country’s infrastructure, then the monoculture risks may re-surface.

By Andrew Yeomans


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