The Evolution of Security Thinking

In design sometimes we refer to the strategies used during the design process as Design thinking.  The application of these strategies helps ensure you are solving the right problems and doing so in a repeatable way. You can attribute much of the massive improvements in usability in software and devices over the two decades to these strategies.

If we look at how we have evolved thinking around building secure systems over the last two decades we can see that we have evolved similar strategies to help ensure positive security outcomes.

If we go back to the late 80s we see systems that were largely designed for a world of honest actors. There was little real business happening on the Internet at the time and the hard problems to be solved were all related to how do we enable a global network of interconnected systems so thats where efforts were put. These efforts led us to the Internet of today but it also gave us systems vulnerable to trivial attacks such as the Morris Worm.

By the 90s the modern “security industry” was born and products designed to protect these insecure systems from the internet started to come to market. One of the most impactful examples of this was the TIS Firewall Toolkit, other examples of this way of thinking include Antivirus products and other agents that promised to keep our applications and operating systems safe from “attackers”.

By the late 90s and early 2000s, it was clear that these agents were never going to be effective at keeping the bad guys out and that we needed to be building systems that were Secure by Default, Secure by Design and Private by Design. This shift in thinking meant that solution developers needed to develop their own strategies and tooling to ensure systems could be built to be inherently resilient to the risks they were exposed to. The concept of Threat Modeling is probably the most concrete example of this, believe it or not, this basic concept was essentially absent from software development up until this point.

By this time the technical debt in deployed systems was so great we spent most of a decade just trying to rectify the mistakes of the past. Windows XP SP2 and the Microsoft Security Stand Down is probably the most visible example of the industry making this shift, it also leads to the Security Development Lifecycle that largely informs how we as an industry, approach building secure systems today.

During this timeline, cryptography was treated as something that you sprinkled on top of existing systems with the hope to make them more confidential and secure. As an industry, we largely relied on the US Government to define the algorithms we used and to tell us how to use them securely. As a general rule only products designed for government use or for the small group of “cypherpunks” even considered the inclusion of cryptography due to the complexity of “getting it right”.

Things are changing again, we see the IETF via the CFRG working to standardize on international and independently created and cryptographic algorithms in lieu of relying exclusively on governments to do this standardization. We also see the concept of Formal Verification being applied to cryptographic systems (Galois is doing great work here with Cryptol as are other great projects in the verifiable computing space) which is leading us to have frameworks we can apply to build these concepts into other products securely (check out the Noise Protocol Framework as an example).

I think the Signal Protocol and Blockchain Technologies are examples of the next phase of evolution in our thinking about how we build secure systems. Not because of “decentralization” or some anti-government bent in technologists, instead, these systems were designed with a more-complete understanding of security risks associated with their use.

Trust is a necessary component of human existence. It can give us peace of mind but It can also give us broken hearts. The same is true in the context of system design. Trust cautiously.

These systems, by design, go to great length to limit the need for “trust” for a system to work as intended. They do this by minimizing the dependencies that a system takes in its design, this is because each of those dependencies represents an attack vector as we advance technology our attackers become more advanced as well. They also make extensive use of cryptography to make that possible.

This focus on dependency reduction is why we see Blockchain enthusiasts taking the maximalist position of “Decentralize all the Things”. In my opinion, centralization is not always a bad thing, over-centralization maybe, but centralization can provide value to users and that value is what we should be focused on as solution developers.

My personal take is that when we look back on the next decade we will the say the trend was not “blockchain” but instead this is when we evolved our security thinking and tooling to better utilize cryptography. Specifically that this is when we started to use cryptography to make transparency, confidentiality and verifiability part of the core of the solutions we build instead of thinking of it as a layer we apply once we are done.

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