I don’t really know how to take this article on Eugene Kaspersky’s interview at InfoSec The iPhone will be niche in 5 years because it’s closed? We should have databases of smartphone users?

I’m really hoping some if it is few translation and context issues, which is quite possible. And I’m glad he didn’t say the iPhone is less secure because it’s closed, which is a common trope from a few folks in the AV world.

I believe that closed systems can actually be better for security, when designed properly. Otherwise why are we all obsessed with FIPS-140 tamper resistance?

Perhaps it’s because ‘closed’ has multiple meanings – and we need to differentiate between three of them for security:

  1. Closed as in locked down. The platform uses controls to restrict what can run on it.
  2. Closed as in proprietary. In other words, not Open Source.
  3. Closed as in super secret. Code/hardware/etc. is hidden and/or obfuscated.

The common argument for proprietary or hidden being bad is that you can’t see what’s inside and evaluate it (or fix it). I do think this is true for things like crypto algorithms, but not for complex applications. A little obfuscation could help security, and to be honest your odds of crawling the code and finding problems are pretty low. Especially since dynamic analysis/fuzzing are so effective at finding holes. There is a ton of testing you can do without access to the source code.

But the closed I think is important to security is the locked platform. If done properly, this reduces attackers’ ability to run arbitrary commands/code, and thus improves security. This assumes the vendor is responsive when cracks are discovered.

So back to the iPhone. It sufferings far fewer real-world security incidents than Android because it’s closed. It’s not perfect, but how many apps has Apple had to pull? Compared to Google? If they can even pull them (there are other marketplaces, remember)? And hardware controls make it pretty darn hard to perform deep exploitation (so some really smart researchers tell me).

In an interview last week I suggested that Apple should do the same thing with the App Store on Macs, but there make it optional. Opt in and the system will only let you install App Store apps. Us geeks can opt out and continue to do what we want. I suspect this would go a heck of a long way toward protecting nontechnical users, especially from things like phishing attacks.

Anyway, just some random thoughts. And keep them in context – I’m not saying closed is always better, but that it can be.