Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Meltdown and Spectre are not the problem

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Currently, the news reporting in the IT area is dominated by Meltdown and Spectre—two security vulnerabilities that afflict many modern CPUs and pose a very severe threat to at least* data secrecy. The size of the potential impact is demonstrated by the fact that even regular news services are paying close attention.

*From what I have read so far, the direct danger in other regards seems to be small; however, there are indirect dangers, e.g. that the read data includes a clear-text password, which in turn could allow full access to some account or service. Further, my readings on the technical details have not been in-depth and there could be direct dangers that I am still unaware of.

However, they are not themselves the largest problem, being symptoms of the disease(s) rather than the disease it self. That something like this eventually happened with our CPUs, is actually not very surprising (although I would have suspected Intel’s “management engine”, or a similar technology, to be the culprit).

The real problems are the following:

  1. The ever growing complexity of both software and hardware systems: The more complex a system, the harder it is to understand, the more likely to contain errors (including security vulnerabilities), the more likely to display unexpected behaviors, … In addition, fixing problems, once found, is the harder, more time consuming, and likelier to introduce new errors. (As well as a number of problems not necessarily related to computer security, notably the greater effort needed to add new features and make general improvements.)

    In many ways, complexity is the bane of software development (my own field), and when it comes to complicated hardware products, notably CPUs, the situation might actually be worse.

    An old adage in software development is that “any non-trivial program contains at least one bug”. In the modern world, we have to add “any even semi-complex program contains at least one security vulnerability”—and modern programs (and pieces of hardware) are more likely to be hyper-complex than semi-complex…

  2. Security is something rarely prioritized to the degree that it should be, often even not understood. In doubt, “Our program is more secure!” is (still) a weaker sales argument than “Look how many features we have!”, giving software manufacturers strong incentives to throw on more features (and introduce new vulnerabilities) rather than to fix old vulnerabilities or to ensure that old bugs are removed.

    Of course, more features usually also lead to greater complexity…

  3. Generally, although not necessarily in this specific case: A virtual obsession with having everything interfacing with everything else, especially over the Internet (but also e.g. over mechanisms like the Linux D-bus). Such generic and wide-spread interfacing brings more security problems than benefit; for reasons that include a larger interface (implying more possible points of vulnerability), a greater risk to accidentally share private information*, and the opening of doors for external enemies to interact with the software and to deliberately** send data after a successful attack.

    *Be it through technical errors or through the users and software makers having different preferences. For an example of the latter, consider someone trying to document human-rights violations by a dictatorship, and who goes to great length to keep the existence of a particular file secret, including keeping the file on an encrypted USB drive and cleaning up any additional files (e.g. an automatic backup) created during editing. Now say that he opens the file on his computer—and that the corresponding program immediately adds the name and path of the document to an account-wide list of “recently used documents”… (Linux users, even those not using an idiocy like Gnome or KDE, might want to check the file ~/.local/share/recently-used.xbel, should they think that they are immune—and other files of a similar nature are likely present for more polluted systems.)

    **With the particularly perfidious variation of a hostile maker of the original software, who abuses an Internet connection to “phone home” with the user’s private information (cf. Windows 10), or a smart-phone interface to send spam messages to all addresses in the user’s address book, or similar.

To this might, already or in the future, government intervention, restrictions, espionage, whatnot, be added.

The implications are chilling. Consider e.g. the “Internet of things”, “smart homes”, and similar, low benefit* and high risk ideas: Make your light-bulbs, refrigerators, toasters, whatnot, AIs and connect them to the Internet and what will happen? Well, sooner or later one or more of them will be taken over by a hostile entity, be it a hacker or the government, and good-bye privacy (and possibly e.g. money). Or consider trusting a business with a great reputation with your personal data, under the solemn promise that they will never be abused: Well, the business might be truthful, but will it be sufficiently secure for sufficiently long? Will third-parties that legitimately** share the data also be sufficiently secure? Do not bet your life on it—and if you “trust” a dozen different businesses, it is just a matter of time before at least some of the data is leaked. Those of you who follow security related news will have noted a number of major revelations of stolen data being made public on the Internet during the last few years, including several incidents involving Yahoo and millions of Yahoo users.

*While there are specific cases where non-trivial benefits are available, they are in the minority—and even they often come with a disproportional threat to security or privacy. For instance, to look at two commonly cited benefits from this area: Being able to turn the heating in ones apartments up from the office shortly before leaving work, or down from a vacation resort, is a nice feature. Is is more than a nice-to-have, however? For most people, the answer is “no”. Do I actually want my refrigerator to place an order with the store for more milk when it believes that I am running out? Hell no! For one thing, I might not want more milk, e.g. being about to leave for a vacation; for another, I would like to control the circumstance sufficiently well myself, e.g. to avoid that I receive one delivery for (just) milk today, another for (just) bread tomorrow, etc. For that matter, I am far from certain that I would like to have food deliveries be a common occurrence in the first place (for reasons like avoiding profile building and potential additional costs).

**From an ethical point of view, it can be disputed whether this is ever the case; however, it will almost certainly happen anyway, in a manner that the business considers legitimate, the simply truth being that it is very common for large parts of operations to be handled by third-parties. For example, at least in Germany, a private-practice physician almost certainly will have lab work done by an external contractor (who will end up with name, address, and lab results of the patient) and have bills handled by a factoring company (who will end up with name, address, and a fair bit of detail about what took place between patient and physician)—this despite such data being highly confidential. Yes, the patient can refuse the sharing of his data—but then the physician will just refuse taking him on as a patient… To boot, similar information will typically end up with the patient’s insurance company too—or it will refuse to reimburse his costs…

On paper, I might look like a hardware makers dream customer: In the IT business, a major nerd, living behind the keyboard, and earning well. In reality, I am more likely to be a non-customer, to a large part* due to my awareness of the many security issues. For instance, my main use of my smart-phone is as an alarm clock—and I would not dream of installing the one-thousand-and-one apps that various businesses, including banks and public-transport companies, try to shove down the throat of their customers in lieu of a good web-site or reasonably customer support. Indeed, when we compare what can be done with a web-site and with a smart-phone app (in the area of customer service), the app brings precious little benefit, often even a net detriment, for the customer. The business of which he is a customer, on the other hand, has quite a lot to gain, including better possibilities to control the “user experience”, to track the user, to spy on other data present on the device, … (All to the disadvantage of the user.)

*Other parts include that much of the “innovation” put on the market is more-or-less pointless, and that what does bring value will be selling for a fraction of the current price to those with the patience to wait a few years.

Sadly, even with wake-up calls like Meltdown and Spectre, things are likely to grow worse and our opportunity to duck security risks to grow smaller. Twenty years from now, it might not even be possible to buy a refrigerator without an Internet connection…

In the mean time, however, I advice:

  1. My fellow consumers to beware of the dangers and to prefer more low-tech solutions and less data sharing whenever reasonably possible.
  2. My fellow developers to understand the dangers of complexity and try to avoid it and/or reduce its damaging effects, e.g. throw preferring smaller pieces of software/interfaces/whatnot, using a higher degree of modularization, sharing less data between components, …
  3. Businesses to take security and privacy seriously and not to unnecessarily endanger the data or the systems of their customers.
  4. The governments around the world to consider regulations* and penalties to counter the current negative trends and to ensure that security breaches hurt the people who created the vulnerabilities as hard as their customers—and, above all, to lay off idiocies like the Bundestrojaner!

    *I am not a friend of regulation, seeing that it usually does more harm than good. When the stakes are this high, and the ability or willingness to produce secure products so low, then regulation is the smaller of the two evils. (With some reservations for how well or poorly thought-through the regulations are.)

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Written by michaeleriksson

January 7, 2018 at 1:08 am

One Response

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  1. […] Then there is the issue of hacking and security: Not only does this provide yet another channel through which private information can leak, but it also adds the risk of damaging interventions. For instance, the movie showed examples of visual input being sufficiently manipulated, in real time, that the victim could not rely on his eye sight. With this level of technology, it would be easy to e.g. have someone just walk into oncoming traffic. However, even with abilities more realistic by today’s standards, great harm can be caused, e.g. by having textual information altered to imply that another party is sleeping with the own spouse. Looking at self-driving cars, with similar vulnerabilities and a greater current realism, we could have a hostile entity manipulate a car into taking actions that lead to a car crash, a run-over pedestrian, or some other calamity. (See also e.g. [3].) […]


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