Home > Security > Safe Computing In An Unsafe World: Die Zeit Interview

Safe Computing In An Unsafe World: Die Zeit Interview

So some of the more fun bugs involve one team saying, “Heh, we don’t need to validate input, we just pass data through to the next layer.”  And the the next team is like, “Heh, we don’t need to validate input, it’s already clean by the time it reaches us.”  The fun comes when you put these teams in the same room.  (Bring the popcorn, but be discreet!)

Policy and Technology have some shared issues, that sometimes they want each other to solve.  Meanwhile, things stay on fire.

I talked about some of our challenges in Infosec with Die Zeit recently.  Germany got hit pretty bad recently and there’s some soul searching.  I’ll let the interview mostly speak for itself, but I would like to clarify two things:

1) Microsoft’s SDL (Security Development Lifecycle) deserves more credit.  It clearly yields more secure code.  But getting past code, into systems, networks, relationships, environments — there’s a scale of security that society needs, which technology hasn’t achieved yet.

2) I’m not at all advocating military response to cyber attacks.  That would be awful.  But there’s not some magic Get Out Of War free card just because something came over the Internet.  For all the talk of regulating non-state actors, it’s actually the states that can potentially completely overwhelm any potential technological defense.   Their only constraints are a) fear of getting caught, b) fear of damaging economic interests, and c) fear of causing a war.  I have doubts as to how strong those fears are, or remain.  See, they’re called externalities for a reason…

(Note:  This interview was translated into German, and then back into English.  So, if I sound a little weird, that’s why.)

Der IT-Sicherheitsforscher und Hacker Dan Kaminsky

(Headline) „No one knows how to make a computer safe.”

(Subheading) The American computer security specialist Dan Kaminsky talks about the cyber-attack on the German Bundestag: In an age of hacker wars, diplomacy is a stronger weapon than technology.


Dan Kaminsky (https://dankaminsky.com/bio/) is one of the most well-known hacker- and IT security specialists in the United States. He made a name for himself with the discovery of severe security holes on the Internet and in computer systems of large corporations. In 2008, he located a basic error in the DNS, (http://www.wired.com/2008/07/kaminsky-on-how/), the telephone book of the Internet, and coordinated a worldwide repair. Nowadays, he works as a “chief scientist” at the New York computer security firm White Ops. (http://www.whiteops.com).

Questions asked by Thomas Fischermann

ZEIT Online: After the cyber attack on the German Bundestag, there has been a lot of criticism against the IT manager. (http://www.zeit.de/digital/datenschutz/2015-06/hackerangriff-bundestag-kritik).
Are the Germans sloppy when it comes to computer security?

Dan Kaminsky: No one should be surprised if a cyber attack succeeds somewhere. Everything can be hacked. I assume that all large companies are confronted somehow with hackers in their systems, and in national systems, successful intrusions have increased. The United States, e.g., have recently lost sensitive data of people with “top security” access to state secrets to Chinese hackers. (http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/06/15/us-cybersecurity-usa-exposure-idUSKBN0OV0CC20150615)

ZEIT Online: Due to secret services and super hackers employed by the government who are using the Internet recently?

Kaminsky: I’ll share a business secret with you: Hacking is very simple. Even teenagers can do that. And some of the most sensational computer break-ins in history are standard in technical terms – e.g., the attack on the Universal Sony Pictures in the last year where Barack Obama publically blamed North Korea for. (http://www.zeit.de/2014/53/hackerangriff-sony-nordkorea-obama). Three or four engineers manage that in three to four months.

ZEIT Online: It has been stated over and over again that some hacker attacks carry the “signature” of large competent state institutions.

Kaminsky: Sometimes it is true, sometimes it is not. Of course, state institutions can work better, with less error rates, permanently and more unnoticed. And they can attack very difficult destinations: e.g., nuclear power plants, technical infrastructures. They can prepare future cyber-attacks and could turn off the power of an entire city in case of an event of war.

ZEIT Online: But once more: Could we not have protected the computer of the German Bundestag better?

Kaminsky: There is a very old race among hackers between attackers and defenders. Nowadays, attackers have a lot of possibilities while defenders only have a few. At the moment, no one knows how to make a computer really safe.

ZEIT Online: That does not sound optimistic.

Kaminsky: The situation can change. All great technological developments have been unsafe in the beginning, just think of the rail, automobiles and aircrafts. The most important thing in the beginning is that they work, after that they get safer. We have been working on the security of the Internet and the computer systems for the last 15 years…

ZEIT Online: How is it going?

Kaminsky: There is a whole movement for example that is looking for new programming methods in order to eliminate the gateways for hackers. In my opinion, the “Langsec” approach is very interesting (http://www.upstandinghackers.com/langsec), with which you are looking for a kind of a binding grammar for computer programs and data formats that make everything safe. If you follow the rules, it should be hard for a programmer to produce that kind of errors that would be used by hostile hackers later on. When a system executes a program in the future or when a software needs to process a data record, it will be checked precisely to see if all rules where followed – as if a grammar teacher would check them.

ZEIT Online: That still sounds very theoretical…

Kaminsky: It is a new technology, it is still under development. In the end it will not only be possible to write a secure software, but also to have it happen in a natural way without any special effort, and it shall be cheap.

ZEIT Online: Which other approaches do you consider promising?

Kaminsky: Ongoing safety tests for computer networks are becoming more widespread: Firms and institutions pay hackers to permanently break-in in order to find holes and close them. Nowadays, this happens sporadically or in large intervals, but in the future we will need more of those “friendly” hackers.  Third, there is a totally new generation of anti-hacker software in progress. Their task is not to prevent break-ins – because they will happen anyway – but to observe the intruders very well. This way we can assess better who the hackers are and we can prevent them from gaining access over days or weeks.

ZEIT Online: Nevertheless, those are still future scenarios. What can we do today if we are already in possession of important data? Go offline?

Kaminsky: No one will go offline. That is simply too inefficient. Even today you can already store data in a way that they are not completely gone after a successful hacker attack. You split them. Does a computer user really ever need to have access to all the documents in the whole system? Does the user need so much system band width that he can download masses of documents?

ZEIT Online: A famous case for this is the US Secret Service that lost thousands of documents to Edward Snowden. There are also a lot of hackers though who work for the NSA in order to break in other computer systems …

Kaminsky: … yeah, and that is poison for the security of the net. The NSA and a lot of other secret services say nowadays: We want to defend our computers – and attack the others. Most of the time, they decide to attack and make the Internet even more unsafe for everyone.

ZEIT Online: DO you have an example for this?

Kaminsky: American secret services have known for more than a decade that a spy software can be saved on the operating system of computer hard disks.
(http://www.geek.com/apps/nsa-malware-found-hiding-in-hard-drives-for-almost-20-years-1615949/, http://www.kaspersky.com/about/news/virus/2015/Equation-Group-The-Crown-Creator-of-Cyber-Espionage). Instead of getting rid of those security holes, they have been actively using it for themselves over the years… The spyware was open for the secret services – who have been using it for a number of malwares that have been discovered recently– and for everyone who has discovered those holes as well.

ZEIT Online: Can you change such a behavior?

Kaminsky: Yes, economically. Nowadays, spying authorities draw their right to exist from being able to get information from other people’s computer. If they made the Internet safer, they would hardly be rewarded for that…

ZEIT Online: A whole industry is taking care of the security of the net as well: Sellers of anti-virus and other protection programs.

Kaminsky: Nowadays, we spend a lot of money on security programs. But we do not even know if the computers that are protected in that way are really the ones who get hacked less often. We do not have any good empirical data and no controlled study about that.

ZEIT Online: Why does no one take such studies?

Kaminsky: This is obviously a market failure. The market does not offer services that would be urgently needed for increased safety in computer networks. A classical case in which governments could make themselves useful – the state. By the way, the state could contribute something else: deterrence

ZEIT Online: Pardon?

Kaminsky: In terms of computer security, we still blame the victims themselves most of the time: You have been hacked, how dumb! But when it comes to national hacker attacks that could lead to cyber wars this way of thinking is not appropriate. If someone dropped bombs over a city, no one’s first reaction would be: How dumb of you to not having thought about defensive missiles!

ZEIT Online: How should the answer look like then?

Kaminsky: Usually nation states are good in coming up with collective punishments: diplomatic reactions, economic sanctions or even acts of war. It is important that the nation states discuss with each other about what would be an adequate level of national hacker attacks and what would be too much. We have established that kind of rules for conventional wars but not for hacker attacks and cyber war. For a long time they had been considered as dangerous, but that has changed. You want to live in a cyber war zone as little as you want to live in a conventional war zone!

ZEIT Online: To be prepared for counterstrikes you first of all have to know the attacker. We still do not know the ones who were responsible for the German Bundestag hack…

Kaminsky: Yeah, sometimes you do not know who is attacking you. In the Internet there are not that many borders or geographical entities, and attackers can even veil their background. In order to really solve this problem, you would have to change the architecture of the Internet.

ZEIT Online: You had to?

Kaminsky: … and then there is still the question: Would it be really better for us, economically wise, than the leading communication technologies Minitel from France or America Online? Were our lives better when network connections were still horrible expensive? And is a new kind of net even possible when well appointed criminals or nation states could find new ways for manipulation anyway? The „attribution problem“ with cyber attacks stays serious and there are no obvious solutions. There are a lot of solutions though that are even worse than the problem itself.

Questions were asked by Thomas Fischermann (@strandreporter, @zeitbomber)

Categories: Security
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