Research Revisited: Apple, Security, and Trust

Update: After publishing this, I realized I should have taken more time editing, especially after Apple released their iOS Security paper this week. My intention was to refer to situations where, often due to attacks, vulnerabilities, or other events, Apple is pushed into responding. They can still struggle to balance the lines between what they want to say, and what outsiders want to hear. They have very much improved communications with researchers, the media, and the level of security information they publish in the open. It is the crisis situations that knock things off kilter at times. I am sometimes called an Apple apologist for frequently defending their security choices, but it wasn’t always that way. I first started writing about Apple security because those were the products I used, and I was worried Apple didn’t take security seriously. I was very personally invested in their choices, and there were a lot of reasons when I first posted this back in 2006 to think we were headed for disaster. In retrospect, my post was both on and off target. I thought at the time that Apple needed to focus more on communications. But Apple, as always, chose their own path. They have improved communications significantly, but not nearly as much as someone like Microsoft. But at the same time they tripled down on security. iOS is now one of the most secure platforms out there (yes, even despite the patch last week). OS X is also far more secure than it was, and Apple continues to invest in new security options for users. I was right and I was wrong. Apple recognized, due to the massive popularity of iOS, that building customer trust was essential to maintaining a market lead. They acted on that with dramatic improvements in security. iOS has yet to suffer any major wide-scale exploitation. OS X added features like FileVault 2 (encryption for the masses) and GateKeeper (wrecking malware markets). Apple most definitely sees security as essential to trust. But they still struggle with communications. Not that I expect them to ever not act like Apple, but they are still feeling their way around the lines to find a level they are comfortable with culturally, which still avoids negative spin cycles like I talk about below. This post originally appeared on October 18, 2006 Apple, Security, and Trust Before I delve into this topic I’d like to remind readers that I’m a Mac user and Apple fan. We are a 2 person, 2 Mac, 3 iPod, 2 Airport Express household, with another Mac in the plans this spring. By the same token I don’t think Microsoft is evil and consider some of their products to be quite good. That said I prefer OS X and have no plans to switch to Vista, although I’ll probably run it in a virtual machine on my Mac. What I’m about to say is in the nature of protecting, not attacking, one of my favorite vendors. Apple faces a choice. Down one path is the erosion of trust, lost opportunities, and customers facing increased risk. On the other path is increased trust, greater opportunities, and happy, safe, customers. I have a lot vested in Apple, and I’d like to keep it that way. As most of you probably know by now, Apple shipped a limited number of video iPods loaded with a Windows virus that could infect an attached PC. The virus is well known and all antivirus software should stop it, but the reality is this is an extremely serious security failure on the part of Apple. The numbers are small and damages limited, but there was obviously some serious breakdown in their security controls and QA process. As with many recent Apple security stories this one was about to quietly fade into the night were it not for Apple PR. In Apple’s statement they said, “As you might imagine, we are upset at Windows for not being more hardy against such viruses, and even more upset with ourselves for not catching it.”. As covered by George Ou and Amrit Williams, this statement is embarrassing, childish, and irresponsible. It’s the technical equivalent of blaming a crime victim for their own victimization. I’m not defending the security problems of XP, which are a serious epidemic unto themselves, but this particular mistake was Apple’s fault, and easily preventable. While Mike Rothman agrees with Ou and Williams, he correctly notes that this is just Apple staying on message. That message, incorporated into all major advertising and marketing, is that Macs are more secure and if you’d just switch to a Mac you wouldn’t have to worry about spyware and viruses. It’s a good message, today, because it’s true. I bought my mom a Mac and talked my sister into switching her small business to Macs primarily because of security. I’m overprotective and no longer feel my friends and family can survive on the Internet on XP. Vista is a whole different animal, fundamentally more secure than its predecessors, but it’s not available yet so I couldn’t consider that option. Thus it was iMac and Mac mini city. But when Apple sticks to this message in the face of a contradictory reality they expose themselves, and their customers, to greater risks. Reality is starting to change and Apple isn’t, and therein lies my concern. All relationships are founded on trust and need. (Amrit has another good post on this topic in business relationships). One of the keystones of trust is security. I like to break trust into three components: Intent: How do you intend to treat participants in a relationship? Capability: Can you behave in compliance with your intent? Communication: Can you effectively communicate both your intent and capability? Since there’s no perfect security we always need to make security tradeoffs. Intent decides how far you need to go with security, while capability defines if you’re really that secure, and communication is how you get customers to believe both your intent and capability. Recent actions by Apple are breaking their foundations of trust. As a business this is a

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Research Revisited: Hammers vs. Homomorphic Encryption

We are running a retrospective during RSA because we cannot blog at the show. We each picked a couple posts we like and still think relevant enough to share. I picked a 2011 post on Hammers and Homomorphic Encryption, because a couple times a year I hear about a new startup which is going to revolutionize security with a new take on homomorphic encryption. Over and over. And perhaps some day we will get there, but for now we have proven technologies that work to the same end. (Original post with comments) Researchers at Microsoft are presenting a prototype of encrypted data which can be used without decrypting. Called homomorphic encryption, the idea is to keep data in a protected state (encrypted) yet still useful. It may sound like Star Trek technobabble, but this is a real working prototype. The set of operations you can perform on encrypted data is limited to a few things like addition and multiplication, but most analytics systems are limited as well. If this works, it would offer a new way to approach data security for publicly available systems. The research team is looking for a way to reduce encryption operations, as they are computationally expensive – their encryption and decryption demand a lot of processing cycles. Performing calculations and updates on large data sets becomes very expensive, as you must decrypt the data set, find the data you are interested in, make your changes, and then re-encrypt altered items. The ultimate performance impact varies with the storage system and method of encryption, but overhead and latency might typically range from 2x-10x compared to unencrypted operations. It would be a major advancement if they could dispense away with the encryption and decryption operations, while still enabling reporting on secured data sets. The promise of homomorphic encryption is predictable alteration without decryption. The possibility of being able to modify data without sacrificing security is compelling. Running basic operations on encrypted data might remove the threat of exposing data in the event of a system breach or user carelessness. And given that every company even thinking about cloud adoption is looking at data encryption and key management deployment options, there is plenty of interest in this type of encryption. But like a lot of theoretical lab work, practicality has an ugly way of pouring water on our security dreams. There are three very real problems for homomorphic encryption and computation systems: Data integrity: Homomorphic encryption does not protect data from alteration. If I can add, multiply, or change a data entry without access to the owner’s key: that becomes an avenue for an attacker to corrupt the database. Alteration of pricing tables, user attributes, stock prices, or other information stored in a database is just as damaging as leaking information. An attacker might not know what the original data values were, but that’s not enough to provide security. Data confidentiality: Homomorphic encryption can leak information. If I can add two values together and come up with a consistent value, it’s possible to reverse engineer the values. The beauty of encryption is that when you make a very minor change to the ciphertext – the data you are encrypting – you get radically different output. With CBC variants of encryption, the same plaintext has different encrypted values. The question with homomorphic encryption is whether it can be used while still maintaining confidentiality – it might well leak data to determined attackers. Performance: Performance is poor and will likely remain no better than classical encryption. As homomorphic performance improves, so do more common forms of encryption. This is important when considering the cloud as a motivator for this technology, as acknowledged by the researchers. Many firms are looking to “The Cloud” not just for elastic pay-as-you-go services, but also as a cost-effective tool for handling very large databases. As databases grow, the performance impact grows in a super-linear way – layering on a security tool with poor performance is a non-starter. Not to be a total buzzkill, but I wanted to point out that there are practical alternatives that work today. For example, data masking obfuscates data but allows computational analytics. Masking can be done in such a way as to retain aggregate values while masking individual data elements. Masking – like encryption – can be poorly implemented, enabling the original data to be reverse engineered. But good masking implementations keep data secure, perform well, and facilitate reporting and analytics. Also consider the value of private clouds on public infrastructure. In one of the many possible deployment models, data is locked into a cloud as a black box, and only approved programatic elements ever touch the data – not users. You import data and run reports, but do not allow direct access the data. As long as you protect the management and programmatic interfaces, the data remains secure. There is no reason to look for isolinear plasma converters or quantum flux capacitors when when a hammer and some duct tape will do. Share:

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