Groundrules on Complaining About Security
In this article, I want to lead into some other articles I’m working on. In those, I’m going to complain about security. But I want those complaints to be thoughtful and within a proper context.
You will hear many of us in security talk about threat models. Adam literally wrote the book on threat models and if you don’t have a copy, you should get one.
Threat models are a way of thinking about security in a somewhat rigorous way. Without some sort of threat model, you’re not really doing security.
Threat models sound complex, but they’re really not. We all do them intuitively all the time, and here’s the basic outline of how to make one. You want answers to these questions:
- What are you doing?
- What could go wrong?
- What are you doing about it?
Among the valuable things in Adam’s book, he talks about these and more, but these three simple questions frame how to talk about security no matter who you are. If you don’t have a threat model, you might be doing something useful, but it’s not really security.
If you are a maker of security, without a threat model you might have a solution in search of a problem. You might also have a stone soup security system, in which you throw a bunch of things in a pot, and while tasty (or secure), isn’t organized. There are many, many stone soup security systems out there.
If you’re going to use a security system, without a threat model you have no way to know if what you’re getting meets your needs.
If you’re challenging a security system, without a threat model, your criticisms may be true but irrelevant.
It is these latter two cases – deciding what security system to you and providing a critique of a security system – that I’m going to focus on, particularly since I’m going to be engaging in challenges, and people selecting a system also need to think about what their own threat model is when selecting a system. If you’re going to use a secuity system, a little bit of thought about what you expect it to do and what you expect it to protect you from is in required.
Let me move a bit away from computer security for a moment; analogies often help.
Let’s look at this statement:
- Aspirin doesn’t cure cancer.
It’s true. Aspirin doesn’t cure cancer. It doesn’t do half-bad on headaches (with of course, a number of other qualifiers), but it doesn’t cure cancer.
However, if Alice says, “I’m going to go take an aspirin” and Bob says, “Aspirin doesn’t cure cancer,” he has implicitly assumed that her threat model is not:
- I have a headache
- I’m going to take an aspirin to cure it
- I have cancer
- I’m going to take an aspirin to cure it.
Even if Alice actually does have cancer, she might also have a headache. Especially if she has to deal with someone with simplisitic thinking like Bob. This is the sort of headache that got me to write this essay.
Getting back to security, while I was typing the first part of this, a friend and I started on a discussion. We started with wondering if since most front door locks are easily picked, does that mean that they’re just security theatre. The discussion then went into social value of locks (most people are honest, after all), the technological merits of Abloy locks, the expense of getting a good lock for all your doors, the human factors aspects of wanting one key for all your doors, the security problem of weak points from the porch to the windows, and then on to reinforcing hinges and even the front door itself. It was a fun discussion, but it wasn’t a good security discussion, it was security stone soup. The initial question of whether most door locks do anything was the pot of water with a stone in it and we kept adding in garnishes until we ended up with a tasty conversation. However, at no point did we discuss a threat model. We don’t know what we were trying to protect, what threats we were protecting it from, or anything that turns it into a real security discussion.
I think we were talking about a stereotypical threat of a burglar backing up a van to the house and carting off a lot of valuables, but I am just presuming that.
I know of what I speak in this issue of threat models because I’m guilty of it, too. It’s so easy to get caught up in security stone soup that it happened to me while I was writing an essay on threat models and security stone soup.
Now that I have a couple of ground rules in place as a preface, I will complain about security in my next essay.