The Future of Computer Security
People keep asking me:
Is AV dead? Is HIPS the ultimate solution? Are we going to need to have chips surgically implanted in our…”
Okay, let’s not degenerate this in the first fifty words. I’d like to start with some facts about the state of software security for PCs.
1. The world does not protect itself against Zero Day attacks. The majority thinks it does, but reality begs to differ.
2. People buy AV products because they don’t know any better. Ignorance is bliss, but not in security. Security checks have been bumped up since 9/11 – enough said.
3. People are lazy, myself leading that pack. We want things done, but we don’t want to lift a finger. It’s 2007, so we shouldn’t have to!
Let me expand on these points.
1. The world does not protect itself against Zero Day attacks.
Our primary protection is the use of software products called AV (antivirus). These products essentially create a signature for the malware, which functions much like a mug shot does for a criminal, but only after the crime has been committed. In PCland, AV can never be used as protection against Zero Day attacks because the virus signature (a.k.a. the mug shot) has not been created yet; hence, no protection. In an ideal, if not idiotic, world, virii authors would be kind enough to submit their malware to AV vendors, wait for them to create signatures and update their AV users, and then release their malware to the public so that we could catch zero day attacks. We can expect that about as much as we can expect the criminal to go to the police and say “hey, I’m going to commit a crime”, and the police to prevent the crime. My point: we just don’t protect ourselves against Zero Day attacks.
2. People buy AV products because they don’t know any better.
People buy a lot of AV, so it must be the best protection available, right? Wrong. This is not a good argument. People buy a lot of cigarettes, too. This is not to discredit AV; it does what it was designed to do, but it just isn’t enough by itself. Fraudsters and their toys are a force to be reckoned with, and AV alone isn’t up to the fight.
3. People are lazy.
Look around you: we built washing machines because we got tired of hauling our laundry and the washboard to the river and back. We built dishwashers so husbands wouldn’t have to wash dishes (and spot on, I say!). From cars to nappies, humans demand easy-to-use, painless solutions that give us more time for ourselves and deliver the desired outcome with minimal effort. We want the same from our internet security. We can clap our hands and turn on a lamp, so we should be able to “plug and protect” our PCs just as easily.
The future, from my point of view.
Our houses have doors, burglar alarms and insurance. Well, most do, at least. If you don’t have a door, a burglar can walk in and steal your PC; thus, the door prevents the burglar from entering.
But Melih, doors can be kicked in!
Yes, they can, so continuing to get stronger doors isn’t much of a solution. This is why we should never rely on just one layer of security. The door to the house isn’t enough, so we install a burglar alarm. If he can get in, at least we can detect him – prevention plus detection, two layers. Let’s say he cuts your electric wires or manages to turn off the burglar alarm in another way (They make it look so easy on TV, don’t they?). He walks away with not only your computer, but your priceless stamp collection, too. This is why we have insurance, to recover the value of stolen items. Thus, insurance is the cure, the third layer in our layered approach. Stacking up these layers, in order, to protect the PCs in our homes, we have:
1. A door for prevention
2. A burglar alarm for detection, and
3. Insurance for the cure.
I thought you were going to tell us how to secure our PCs, not our homes, Melih!
I just did. The layered approach can be just as easily applied to our PCs. We use AV as our main source of defense, but is AV prevention? No, it’s detection, the veritable burglar alarm for a PC, but it must have the malware signature – the burglar’s mug shot – or it won’t sound the alarm. A new burglar, however, has a free pass, and no alarm goes off. This, my friends, is the infamous Zero Day attack, which our AV allows to happen. Now relax, AV devotees. I’m not saying AV is crap; I’m just pointing out its weaknesses, so calm down. With AV, our PC “house” has a burglar alarm but no door. Ridiculous, right? But that’s how it is! Some of us employ Firewalls too, but that’s also a form of detection, with a little prevention thrown in, if it’s a decent Firewall that doesn’t leak. If a firewall does leak, it lets the burglar (malware) take something out of the house or, in firewallspeak, make a call to the Internet with your sensitive information. A good firewall sounds an alarm in the form of a popup when this happens, and a really good firewall gives you advice on what to do next. You need both the AV and the firewall to detect someone coming in and things going out. So now our PC house has a decent burglar alarm (detection), but no door. Yikes!
Dude, where’s my door?
This is where we are challenged and need to change the model altogether. We are backwards when it comes to our default settings, but we can overcome this. Today, it’s fair to say that PCs are running with the “default: allow” function, which means they are allowing everything to run and hoping to catch the bad stuff before it executes. It’s more of a swinging gate than a door, and can’t really provide the prevention we seek.
So we should run with the “deny all” function and only allow the good stuff, right?
Bingo. With the “default: allow” in place, we operate on a system of “blacklisting”, blocking only the things that we know ahead of time are destructive. By reversing that and only granting entry to those names on the “whitelist”, we save ourselves the hassle of trying to figure out who’s good and who’s bad. If you aren’t on the list, you’re not coming in, period. Thus, we have a door, it’s solid, and it’s locked.
But Melih, who wants to deal with all the popups asking us if we trust ‘this or that’?
Frankly, no one, but why are we making the assumption that the whitelist database will be limited? It is feasible to create a very cogent whitelist security layer which will be virtually noise-free for the average user, and that is exactly what we are doing.
The days of going to bed without locking the front door are long past. PC security is, or should be, just as important as the security of our homes and personal belongings. We deserve to live our lives without the constant worry of burglary and vandalism, and only a layered approach will give us that peace of mind in regard to our computers.
Melih’s prediction: prevention will become the first line of defense!