Cyber-Security: Here's Why The Bad Guys Are Winning

David B. Black

There’s a war going on in our computers and networks. It’s a silent, invisible war. It’s fierce and continues to escalate.

The bad guys are winning. They are aggressive, hard-working, learning, inventing and focused on the goal of making money. The large army of the good guys is led by hapless, incompetent, unmotivated bureaucrats with meaningless certifications in this or that, consumed by building an audit trail showing that they’ve followed the ever-growing body of useless regulations so that when the nearly-inevitable security disaster happens, they can prove it wasn’t their fault. It’s clearly not a fair fight.

The security war isn’t like a war between nations. It’s more like a sprawling collection of gated communities infiltrated and attacked by myriad bands of criminal groups who break in, rob valuables and sometimes take hostages for ransom. The communities spend more money every year building walls that are higher and stronger and hiring ever more highly trained security people. Governments have multiple departments whose purpose is to stop the criminals directly and to help the communities better defend themselves.

Every year the money spent to prevent cyber-crime goes up, and every year the amount of illicit goods the criminals make off with goes up. The criminals are almost never caught. The problem is clearly not that the communities aren’t spending enough money. The problem is that the defenders don’t know much about computers and are going through the motions while the attackers are going for the gold, i.e. bitcoin.

Hardly anyone, including certified computer professionals with academic degrees, understands what goes on inside computers. They attempt to secure computers using ineffective methods that sound impressive but which they themselves don’t understand. They take great pains to do fancy-sounding things that sound impressive but make no difference.

I have explained the details of the massive hack of Equifax hacking by comparing Equifax EFX security in the computer world to a car dealership’s security in the physical world. Translating invisible computer events to common sense physical things can help anyone understand what this cybersecurity war is all about. In this article I’ll attempt to explain what computer-style security would look like if it were applied to a gated community.

The Gated Community: Defenders and Attackers

The people who build the walls that protect the outer perimeter of the community are proud of their work. In some places they even have walls inside walls!

If the walls were built like computer “walls” are built, you’d see that the walls are a patchwork of wall segments designed at different times by different vendors using very different materials and designs and are shipped with so many flaws that they need frequent upgrades. The people in charge of computer wall installation and maintenance rarely stay on top of the never-ending flow of patches and corrections and apply them haphazardly, if at all. The result is that all the savvy criminal has to do is jump on a vulnerability the second the manufacturer announces it and probe all the walls. It’s not hard – a large fraction of wall maintainers leave gaping holes unpatched for months or even years. Shazam! The criminal is inside the community.

The entrance to the gated community is a gate with a 24x7 guard checking the ID of everyone who enters against the list of people who are permitted to enter. The guard permits no exceptions.

The people who live in gated communities want lots of people to come to their homes and do things for them. They call in and have the person added to the list. The service person comes to the gate, shows ID and is allowed to enter. Maybe they go to the house of the person who wanted them, but there’s no one to stop them going to other houses and doing whatever they feel like, just like a criminal who snuck through the flawed outer wall. Computer programs who “knock on the doors” of heavily guarded computers do the same thing, often with stolen ID’s.

The houses in the community are built securely, with locks on their doors and windows, so that even if a criminal manages to get inside the community, they can’t rob the house.

In the computer world the houses and their exterior walls (servers, operating systems and applications) are built by the same kind of hodge-podge of vendors that build the exterior fences that protect the community. Houses are supplied by a variety of huge vendors using complicated methods and materials. It’s extremely rare that a house is installed without flaws – the builder will usually claim that it’s flawless, but then will come a stream of patches that need to be applied to the house with varying levels of urgency. A diligent clever criminal can go around probing houses for flaws that have yet to be discovered or repaired by the original manufacturer; a lazy criminal can just wait until the flaws are announced and probe specifically for the known flaws, confident that most homeowners won’t bother to apply the corrections.

People in the community want service workers to come to their homes when they’re out to do jobs like cleaning. It’s a huge convenience to have that guard at the gate checking ID to make sure only authorized people are let in. The guard can also loan the authorized person a spare key so they can enter the house and do the work they’ve been asked to do.

In the computer world the criminal enters with a fake ID and gets a “key” which usually gives you permission to enter many “houses,” where you can do whatever you want – mess things up, steal things, etc. You can even change the “locks” and scramble things up (encrypt them) so badly that the house can’t be used. Imagine that the frying pan is stored under the hats in the coat closet and all the cooking knives scattered inside pieces of clothing in every room. How would you feel about cooking?

As in many high-class gated communities, mail service to the house is provided. Of course, only an authorized mail person is let in the gate in his truck that contains all the mail and packages to be delivered.

In the computer world, homeowners aren’t careful about opening their “mail,” and sometimes packages they open contain invisible little criminal robots that immediately scurry out of the homeowner’s sight, pull out their cell phones and start communicating with criminal HQ. They run around the house and send out all the private information about the people who live there, including ID’s. They’re RAT’s (remote-access trojans) and result from what are called phishing attacks in email. Most homeowners aren’t able to resist opening infected emails of this kind. Sometimes the RAT’s make copies of themselves and send them to neighbors’ homes, spreading the problem.

Some security-minded people in the gated community protect themselves by installing cameras and other security devices so they’re alerted any time a person enters their house when they’re not there.

In the computer world, tracking activities inside the house is extremely rare; detecting unusual activity and sending alerts when it’s detected is almost unheard-of. The criminal computer invader is free to take his time while sending copies of all the valuable information in the house of the gated community to criminal HQ. If the criminal feels like it, he can massively scramble the contents of the house to make it practically unusable, maybe even putting things in locked cabinets. Then he leaves a sign on the entrance door explaining to the homeowner what he’s done and demanding a ransom to return things to normal. When the ransom is paid, nearly always in untraceable bitcoin, the house often isn’t returned to normal after all. Why is anyone surprised?

The guard at the entrance gate makes sure that moving trucks that enter have been authorized by a homeowner, and that when they leave, the homeowner has approved the exit.

In the computer world, watching what goes on inside the walls is rare. The equivalent of moving trucks can be created and endless streams of them can go through the exit of the guarded gate and no one checks.

Some homeowners are particularly concerned about the valuables inside their houses, and so they keep those valuables in an expensive, thick safe, secure from thieves.

In the computer world, data you want to protect from being stolen is encrypted “at rest.” But just like you have to take jewelry out of the safe to wear it, you have to unencrypt data to use it. Therefore the programs in the “house” that make use of valuable data use a method to access the data that unencrypts it automatically after taking it from the “safe” and before giving it to the program that needs it. When the criminal software is in the “house,” it simply uses those same programs to access any and all data that it wants, loads massive valuable data into moving trucks and sends it out the unguarded, unwatched exit gates of the gated community. The owners frequently don’t find out about the theft until months later.

Conclusion

I’m sorry to say, things in the computer world are just as bad as I have described. Cyber-security experts and regulators do little but build up the mountains of pointless, ineffective procedures and regulations to ever-growing heights, seemingly without questioning the value of their efforts. Why should they? No one else does – their highly paid jobs are secure!