Monday, 25 March 2013

Personal Information is the Currency of the Internet

When we talk about privacy of personal information on the Internet what do we mean?  Many people assume it is the punch-line to a joke, as it is the accepted wisdom that there is no privacy on the Internet.  But the wisdom of the crowds is not something I'd bet on.

Legally personal information is anything that can identify an individual.  But this is an overly broad definition, and includes everything you have on your business card.  Morally personal information is that which is in the sphere of your domestic life.  But the work/life balance is increasingly blurred so that doesn't really work either.  A practical definition of personal information that needs privacy protection is anything that can be used against you.

In the past this has been easy to understand and easy to protect.  We used well understood physical security controls.  If you want to stop someone looking into your bedroom window then close the curtains.  But today it's much harder to understand, as the controls are now all logical, changeable, and set by publicly listed corporations.  If you think you understand the Facebook privacy controls today, wait until they change them tomorrow.

These same public corporations are not privacy advocates.  Facebook and Sun have publicly said that the age of privacy is over.  Google, Microsoft and Apple have all gone to court to fight against having to keep your personal information secure.  But this is entirely rational behaviour on their part - if you don't pay for the service you are not the customer, you are the product.

But do we protest too much.  Do we really care about our privacy?

Turn on a TV anywhere in the Western world and you will be bombarded with reality TV shows.  Go to any news-stand and look at the array of gossip magazines.  These forms of entertainment are very popular, and very, very profitable.  And they are all based on voyeurism and abusing the privacy of others.  There is even a mainstream movie coming out this year called Identity Thief, that will let us laugh along at the hapless victim.

I think that there is an explanation, that explains our use of Facebook, that explains reality TV, an explains why privacy on the Internet really does make sense.

Personal information is the currency of the Internet.  It's what we use to pay for services.  It should be protected in the same way we protect our wallet, and we should make sensible choices about where to spend it.

For the value we get from Facebook, for most of us the spend is reasonable.  For the winners of reality TV shows, the spend is trivial compared to the real world cash they convert their privacy into, even if the same can't be said for the losers.

But if we don't protect our privacy, we will have nothing left to spend.  And no-one likes being poor.

Phil Kernick Chief Technology Officer

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

19th century PKI

Over the last few years more and more reports have been published claiming that PKI was fundamentally flawed.  The failure of the Dutch CA DigiNotar is widely claimed to be the final proof.  But I disagree.  The problems with PKI fall into two categories: "you're doing it wrong"; and "you're using it wrong".  Neither of these have anything to do with the fundamental underpinning cryptography.

The problem that PKI is intended to address is trust.  I can trust what you say if someone I trust authorises what you say.  It really is that simple to say, and at the same time fiendishly complicated to implement correctly.

It may surprise you to know that we've been doing PKI since the end of the 19th century, in the role of Justice of the Peace.  This is a person who will witness a signature on an official document.  The receiver of the document trusts that the document is genuine as they trust the JP, and the JP saw you sign it.

However just like current PKI problems, there are identical problems in the 19th century version.  When I had a legal document witnessed at the local public library, the JP had no way of validating that the form I was signing was genuine.  He also made no effort to validate that what I signed was really my signature, nor that I was the person referenced on the form - which makes sense as there is no way he could have done that anyway.

What he asserted is that a real person made a real mark on a real piece of paper.  Everything else is covered by laws against fraud.  And this has worked for more than 100 years, and continues to work today.

If we used current PKI to do only this - assert that a real computer made a real communication at a definite time, everything would be fine.  But we don't.  We want to know which computer, and so ask questions about identity, and then act surprised when the implementations fail us.

PKI is the answer.  It's the question that's wrong.

Phil Kernick Chief Technology Officer

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Printing to the Internet

You've deployed a brand new networked printer, and after getting it all set up and working, what's the next step?  How about connecting it to the public Internet.  So that anyone, anywhere, at any time can print anything they want and waste all your paper and toner.

Madness you say!  Not it would seem in universities in Taiwan, Korea and Japan.

A little Google hacking and we have 31 internet connected Fuji Xerox printers.  Some of them have public IP addresses, but many of them have been actively published through a NAT firewall.  So this was a conscious choice!

Perhaps it's just a clever way for attackers to exfiltrate data, but I've learned not to attribute to malice that which is better explained by incompetence.

Here's my advice: If you want to print to a work printer from home, this is not the way to do it.

Phil Kernick Chief Technology Officer

Monday, 4 March 2013

The Perils of Cloud Analogies

Moving your operations to the cloud is like... a dream for those who love analogies.  All sorts of things have been claimed, but there is only one reality.  It's like outsourcing, because that's exactly what it is.

The biggest business risk with outsourcing is that you replace technical controls with contracts, and while a move from tactical operation to strategic management looks excellent in a business plan, it can fail badly when interacting with the real world.  The claim that "insert-vendor-here" should be better at running the infrastructure because they developed it, is much more an article of faith than a well-reasoned position.

Consider the failure of the Windows Azure platform over the last weekend.  I noticed it when I couldn't play Halo 4.  As a gamer it didn't occur to me that there was anything deeper than the Halo servers weren't working, but it turns out they were hosted on a cloud infrastructure.  And the cloud had failed.  Completely.  The reason: "Storage is currently experiencing a worldwide outage impacting HTTPS operations due to an expired certificate."  In 2013.

Information security is a people business, and the people failed.

As Sony previously discovered, the total failure of their game platform is a pain, but it isn't going to threaten the company.  To Microsoft's credit they had it all restored in about 8 hours.

But Windows Azure doesn't just host games - it hosts businesses.  And the same failure happening in the middle of the week would mean that businesses that had fully moved to the Microsoft cloud could do nothing.  No backup.  No failover.  No disaster recovery.  Because all the availability controls were outsourced.  And it is very unlikely that the clients using the service are big enough to make any contractual claim for loss.

This isn't just a Microsoft problem, Amazon had the same sort of outage last year.  Every cloud hosting provider will have these problems.

So here's my cloud analogy: it's like putting all your eggs in one basket - a basket you've never seen and can't locate - along with everyone else's eggs, and having faith that this will be managed well by the fox.

Phil Kernick Chief Technology Officer