The bias of experience and ignorance of youth

It was really security (well pirate and BBS’s and IRC channels) that first got me seriously into computers. It was a place where I was surrounded with brilliant people and super interesting problems to explore. It did not take long for me to discover cryptography. I remember the first time I encountered the concepts; I was working on cracking a game and the publisher actually had encrypted some of the instructions and I had to figure out what it was they had used, how it worked and how to work around it.

At that moment I was hooked. Since then nearly every professional experience I have had has been in computer security — simply put I love this stuff.

As it turns out most of the last two decades I have ended up working on authentication systems of one sort of another; these end up being interesting applications of protocol design, performance design patterns and cryptography.

The nature of these spaces also resulted in me working on operating systems and security services which in turn led me to have a strong bias against the “web developers” who I viewed largely as script kiddies with no understanding of computer science fundamentals let alone security. So much so I discouraged my son from learning many of the associated technologies because “real programmers” don’t bother with such things.

There has been an amazing shift over the last decade and even if at one point I was right for the above position I certainly would not be today. Not only have the technologies that are used to make up the web evolved to the point that they are as impressive and powerful as many of their native counterparts but many of the engineers working with them have become world-class as well.

This has led to some interesting trends the most poignant being the adoption of Javascript as a language for use outside of the browser like in Node.JS and the Tessel. This has been enabled by a competitive race to build the fastest experience on the web, which has become totally dependent on Javascript.

As a technologist I love this as it makes technology more approachable, it makes it easier for things to be rapidly be built and creates portability of skill across the layers of an engineering project.

As a security practitioner it gives me pause; those of you who know me one of my favorite sayings is “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should” and since this approachability and increased speed of innovation has obvious and natural negative implications when securing systems I am hesitant still to embrace it fully.

I take solace in this dichotomy because of something my mom would always tell me – You’re not learning if your not falling.

As we look at the features in HTML 5 and their support of things like WebCrypto, WebSockets and (god forbid) WebGL I try to remind myself how important it is not to let our personal biases hold back innovation while holding onto the rational and caution approach of my inner security practitioner.

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