Information system security and how little things have changed

When I was a boy my father had me read Plato’s Republic – he wanted to give an oral report on what the key points of the book were and what my personal takeaways were after reading the book.

The first question was easy to answer from the dust jacket or maybe a Cliff Notes (For those of you who have not read the book it is an exploration of the ideas of justice and the ideal government).

With that said, I knew from experience that those personal takeaways are buried in the nuance and no shortcut would satisfy him so off to read I went. What were those takeaways? According to him what I said was: 

  1. The nature of people has not changed much,
  2. The problems we have in government have not changed much.

Why do I bring this up in the context of security? Unfortunately, it is because I do not think things have changed much in security either! I’ll give two examples that stand out to me:

Every program and every privileged user of the system should operate using the least amount of privilege necessary to complete the job.

— Jerome Saltzer, 1974, Communications of the ACM

The moral is obvious. You can’t trust code that you did not totally create yourself. (Especially code from companies that employ people like me.) No amount of source-level verification or scrutiny will protect you from using untrusted code.

Ken Thompson, 1984, Reflections on Trusting Trust

The first quote is the seminal quote referring to the term “least privilege” – a concept we still struggle to see deployed nearly 50 years later. The term is old enough now the marketers have latched onto it so when you speak to many enterprises they talk about it in the scope of group management and not the more fundamental design paradigm it actually represents.

To put this concept in the context of the network in the 90s we talked about how Firewalls, however necessary, were a bit of an antipattern since they represented “the hard candy shell” containing the “soft gooey sweet stuff” the attacker wants to get at and that as a result, it was better to design security into each endpoint. 

A decade later we were talking about using network-level enforcement via “Network Admission Control” at the switch, later yet via DirectAccess and Network Access Protection we were pushing those same decisions down as close to the end device as we could, and in some cases making each of those endpoints capable of enforcing these access requests.

Today we call this pattern ZeroTrust networking, a leading example of this pattern is called BeyondCorp, but again marketers have latched onto ZeroTrust and as a result, it seems almost every enterprise product I hear about these days claims to offer some sort of ZeroTrust story but few objectively meet the criteria I would define for such a lofty term.

Similarly, if we look at the second quote all we have to do is take a look at the recent SolarWinds debacle and realize that almost nothing has changed since Ken Thompson wrote that paper. We also have dozens of examples of keys being compromised being used to attack the software supply chain, or package repositories and open source dependencies being used as attack vectors. Despite us knowing how significant these issues can be for nearly 40 years we have made very little progress in mitigating these issues.

As they say, there is nothing new under the sun, and this appears to be especially true with security. If so why is this the case? How is it we have made so little progress on these fundamental problems as an industry?

Unfortunately, I think it boils down to that customers don’t care until it is too late and this makes it hard for the industry to justify the kinds of fundamental investments necessary to protect the next generation from these decades old.

How do we improve the state of affairs here? Thats really the question, one I don’t have a good answer to.

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