This is usually the time of year I write a how-to article on safe seasonal shopping. And some of it is the usual generic advice – use a credit card, don’t click email links, use merchants you trust, etc. – but I like to include specific advice to deal with new seasonal threats. Wading into the deluge of threat warnings about Black Friday shopping schemes this year, I found mostly noise. There are plenty of real attacks consumers should be worried about, but many which aren’t worth the attention. And every article seems to have a particular agenda. For example, I have a hard time believing SMS banking scams are a real threat to holiday shoppers, in the same way I can’t imagine someone falling for a Nigerian banking scam or turning off their refrigerator because of a crank call. Some are so targeted at a small group, the news is only interesting to the most dedicated security researchers. Others attacks combine good old fashioned fraud with a few Search Engine Optimization shenanigans to game the system, causing a lot of people grief, but persist until law enforcement makes then a priority to investigate. Of the dozens of articles out there, they all seemed to feed the security theater, making it much harder to know what’s a real threat and what’s not.

I don’t know if Bruce Schneier coined the term Security Theater, but he’s certainly the first person I head use the expression. Over the years I thought I knew exactly what he meant: pretending to do something about security when not really doing much of anything. But every couple years I find a new wrinkle to the concept, and now the term embraces several variants. To my mind there are at least four additional variations on this theme, all quasi-political:

  1. Grandstanding: For the pure selfish desire to be front and center in a discussion, and a relevant force in the industry, talking about security topics in overheated terms such as ‘Cyber-War’, taking the popular side on a one-sided issue like spam, or stating “X technology is dead!”
  2. Voyeuristic Groupies: The audience for security theater. If you have ever been to Washington DC and watched the lawyers and lobbyists huddle around politicians and policy makers for the sheer enjoyment of watching partisan politics as if it were Shakespearean theater, you know what I am talking about. The audience for security theater is simply fascinated by the hacks and clever ways in which hardware, software, and people are subverted. They love security rock stars. Hacking news may not contain much actionable information, but this audience feeds on the drama.
  3. Red Herring: Cry loudly about one problem, while studiously avoiding equally troubling issues. A little security theater redirects the spotlight away from the real problem. Like how to protect oneself from Firesheep, when the real problem is security irresponsibility and sloppy web site coding practices, which are much harder to tackle. Or focusing attention on ATM skimmer fraud becoming more of a problem while releasing very little information on the rates of compromised point-of-sale computers that serve credit card readers. Both are serious security problems – and I am guessing that they cause equal financial losses – but we have published numbers in one instance and not for the other. I understand why: one makes the bank or merchant look like the victim, but the other makes them look too cheap/lazy/incompetent to provide security.
  4. Reverse Scamming: The ATM skimming article referenced above states that there are technologies that solve these problems, such as ‘Chip-and-PIN’ systems. The theoretical argument is that this system is better because it uses two-factor authentication (knowing your PIN and having the card with the chip in it), in practice these systems have been hacked with great success. Look no further that European ATM fraud rates if you have any doubt. If you are a vendor of such technologies, it’s sure great to have people think you can solve the problem, and maybe even get adopted it as a standard. What better way to fill the company coffers?

One thing we know for sure is that on-line fraud rates are on the rise, and both companies and individuas are targets. What we don’t have this year is one or two popular attack types to warn users about – rather we are seeing every known type. And this is further clouded byt seeing more ‘spin’ on security news than I have ever seen before. So this year’s advice is simple: use your head, and use your credit card. Hopefully that will keep you out of trouble, or at least reduce your liability if you do find any.