The “invisible” trade-off? Security.

“For twenty years, people have been leaving security till last.”

Colleague (in a meeting): “For twenty years, people have been leaving security till last.”

Me (in response): “You could have left out those last two words.”

This article will be a short one, and it’s a plea.  It’s also not aimed at my regular readership, because if you’re part of my regular readership, then you don’t need telling.  Many of the articles on this blog, however, are written with the express intention of meeting two criteria:

  1. they should be technical credible[1].
  2. you should be able to show them to your parents or to your manager[2].

I suspect that it’s your manager, this time round, who I’ll be targeting, but I don’t want to make assumptions about your parents’ roles or influence, so let’s leave it open.

The issue I want to address this week is the impact of not placing security firmly at the beginning, middle and end of any system or application design process.  As we all know, security isn’t something that you can bolt onto the end of a project and hope that you’ll be OK.  Equally, if you think about it only at the beginning, you’ll find that by the end, your requirements, use cases, infrastructure or personae will have changed[3], and what you planned at the beginning is no longer fit for purpose.  After all, if you know that your functional requirements will change (and everybody knows this), then why would your non-functional requirements be subject to the same drift?

The problem is that security, being a non-functional requirement[4], doesn’t get the up-front visibility that it needs.  And, because it’s difficult to do well, and it’s often the responsibility of a non-core team member “flown in” as a consultant or expert for a small percentage design meetings, security is the area that it’s easy to decide to let slide a bit.  Or a lot.  Or completely.

If there’s a trade-off around features, functionality or resource location, it’s likely to be security, and often, nobody even raises the point that there has been a trade-off: it’s completely invisible (this is one of the reasons Why I love technical debt).  This is also the reason that whenever I look at a system, I try to think “what were the decisions made about security?”, because, too often, no decisions were made about security at all.

So, if you’re a manager[6], and you’re involved with designing a system or application, don’t let security be the invisible trade-off.  I’m not saying that it needs to be the be-all and end-all of the project, but at least ensure that you think about it.  Thank you.


1 – they should be accurate, to be honest, but I also try not to dive deeper into technical topics than is absolutely required for context.

2 – to be clear, this isn’t about making them work- and parent-safe, but about presenting the topics in a manner that is approachable by non-experts.

3 – or, equally likely, all of them.

4 – I don’t mean that security doesn’t function correctly[5], but rather that it’s not one of the key functions of the system or application that’s being designed.

5 – though, now you mention it…

6 – or parent – see above.

Will quantum computing break security?

Do you want J. Random Hacker to be able to pretend that they’re your bank?

Over the past few years, a new type of computer has arrived on the block: the quantum computer.  It’s arguably the sixth type of computer:

  1. humans – before there were artificial computers, people used, well, people.  And people with this job were called “computers”.
  2. mechanical analogue – devices such as the Antikythera mechanism, astrolabes or slide rules.
  3. mechanical digital – in this category I’d count anything that allowed discrete mathematics, but didn’t use electronics for the actual calculation: the abacus, Babbage’s Difference Engine, etc.
  4. electronic analogue – many of these were invented for military uses such as bomb sights, gun aiming, etc.
  5. electronic digital – I’m going to go out on a limb here, and characterise Colossus as the first electronic digital computer[1]: these are basically what we use today for anything from mobile phones to supercomputers.
  6. quantum computers – these are coming, and are fundamentally different to all of the previous generations.

What is quantum computing?

Quantum computing uses concepts from quantum mechanics to allow very different types of calculations to what we’re used to in “classical computing”.  I’m not even going to try to explain, because I know that I’d do a terrible job, so I suggest you try something like Wikipedia’s definition as a starting point.  What’s important for our purposes is to understand that quantum computers use qubits to do calculations, and for quite a few types of mathematical algorithms – and therefore computing operations – they can solve problems much faster than classical computers.

What’s “much faster”?  Much, much faster: orders of magnitude faster.  A calculation that might take years or decades with a classical computer could, in certain circumstances, take seconds.  Impressive, yes?  And scary.  Because one of the types of problems that quantum computers should be good at solving is decrypting encrypted messages, even without the keys.

This means that someone with a sufficiently powerful quantum computer should be able to read all of your current and past messages, decrypt any stored data, and maybe fake digital signatures.  Is this a big thing?  Yes.  Do you want J. Random Hacker to be able to pretend that they’re your bank[2]?  Do you want that transaction on the blockchain where you were sold a 10 bedroom mansion in Mayfair to be “corrected” to be a bedsit in Weston-super-Mare[3]?

Some good news

This is all scary stuff, but there’s good news, of various types.

The first is that in order to make any of this work at all, you need a quantum computer with a good number of qubits operating, and this is turning out to be hard[4].  The general consensus is that we’ve got a few years before anybody has a “big” enough quantum computer to do serious damage to classical encryption algorithms.

The second is that, even with a sufficient number of qubits to attacks our existing algorithms, you still need even more in order to allow for error correction.

The third is that although there are theoretical models to show how to attack some of our existing algorithms, actually making them work is significantly harder than you or I[5] might expect.  In fact, some of the attacks may turn out to be infeasible, or just take more years to perfect that we’d worried about.

The fourth is that there are clever people out there who are designing quantum-computation resistant algorithms (sometimes referred to as “post-quantum algorithms”) that we can use, at least for new encryption, once they’ve been tested and become widely available.

All-in-all, in fact, there’s a strong body of expert opinion that says that we shouldn’t be overly worried about quantum computing breaking our encryption in the next 5 or even 10 years.

And some bad news

It’s not all rosy, however.  Two issues stick out to me as areas of concern.

  1. People are still designing and rolling out systems which don’t consider the issue.  If you’re coming up with a system which is likely to be in use for ten or more years, or which will be encrypting or signing data which must remain confidential or attributable over those sorts of periods, then you should be considering what the possible impact of quantum computing may have on your system.
  2. some of the new, quantum-computing resistant algorithms are proprietary.  This means that when you and I want to start implementing systems which are designed to be quantum-computing resistant, we’ll have to pay to do so.  I’m a big proponent of open source, and particularly of open source cryptography, and my big worry is that we just won’t be able to open source these things, and worse, that when new protocol standards are created – either de facto or through standards bodies – they will choose proprietary algorithms that exclude the use of open source, whether on purpose, through ignorance, or because few good alternatives are available.

What to do?

Luckily, there are things you can do to address both of the issues above.  The first is to think and plan, when designing a system, about what the impact of quantum computing might be on it.  Often – very often – you won’t actually need to implement anything explicit now (and it could be hard to, given the current state of the art), but you should at least embrace the concept of crypto-agility: designing protocols and systems so that you can swap out algorithms if required[7].

The second is a call to arms: get involved in the open source movement, and encourage everybody you know who has anything to do with cryptography to rally for open standards and for research into non-proprietary, quantum-computing resistant algorithms.  This is something that’s very much on my to-do list, and an area where pressure and lobbying is just as important as the research itself.


1 – I think it’s fair to call it the first electronic, programmable computer.  I know there were earlier non-programmable ones, and that some claim ENIAC, but I don’t have the space or the energy to argue the case here.

2 – no.

3 – see [2].  Don’t get me wrong, by the way – I grew up near Weston-super-Mare, and it’s got things going for it, but it’s not Mayfair.

4 – and if a quantum physicist says that something’s hard, then, to my mind, it’s hard.

5 – and I’m assuming that neither of us is a quantum physicist or mathematician[6].

6 – I’m definitely not.

7 – and not just for quantum-computing reasons: there’s a good chance that some of our existing classical algorithms may just fall to other, non-quantum attacks such as new mathematical approaches.

Merry “sorting out relatives’ IT problems” Day

Today’s the day – or the season – when your mother-in-law asks you to fix her five year old laptop, unclog the wifi (it’s usually her husband, “stealing it all”) or explain why her mouse mat is actually easily large enough – she just needs to lift the mouse up and place it back in the middle if she can’t get the cursor to go any further right.

Lucky me: I didn’t even have to wait till Christmas Day this year: my m-in-law called us at home a couple of days ago to complain that “the email thingy isn’t working on my tablet and the Chrome has gone”. After establishing that her Chrome Book (upstairs) was fine, and she just couldn’t be bothered to ascend the stairs to use it for the two days before we came to visit and I could debug her tablet problem in person, I proceeded to debug the problem over the crackly wireless DECT phone they keep attached to their land line, instead[1].

Despite the difficulty in making out approximately 25% of the words down the line, I became more and more convinced that even if her tablet was having problems, then a reboot of her router was probably due.

Me: so you know which one the router is?

Her: umm…

Me: it’s the little box where the Internet comes in.

Her: is it in the hall?

Me, to the wife, who’s smirking, since she managed to offload this call to me: could it be in the hall?

Wife: yes, it’s in the hall.

Me: yes, it’s in the hall.

Mother-in-law: OK.

Me: there should be a power button on the front or the back, or you can just pull the power lead out if that’s easiest.

Her, clearly bending over to look at it: shall I just turn it off at the wall? That might be simplest?

Me: well, OK.

Her: Right, I’m doing that n… BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP.

It turns out that her DECT phone hub is plugged into the same socket. Of course. This is my life. This is OUR life.

Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year to you all.


1 – this, folks, is how to stay married for 23 and a half years[2].

2 – and counting.

The Twelve Days of Work-Life Balance

12 tips for working at home over the holidays

Disclaimer: the author refuses to take any blame for any resulting disciplinary or legal action taken against readers who follow any of the suggestions in this article.

There’s a good chance that things slow down for the holiday season at your organisation or company[1], and as they do, there’s a corresponding[2] chance that you may end up not going into the office for some of the upcoming days.  Some workplaces expect you to turn up to work in the office unless you’re officially on holiday, while others allow or encourage workers to be based at home and perform their duties there for all or some of the period.  It’s those people who will be spending time at home who are targeted by this article.

Working from home is an opportunity to bunk off and is a complete wheeze a privilege and responsibility to be taken seriously.  There are, however, some important techniques that you should take on board to ensure not only that you continue to be productive but, even more important, that you continue to be seen to be productive.  I’ve split my tips up into helpful headings for your ease of use.

Video calls

Tip 1 (for those who shave): you don’t need to.  Yes, the resolution on webcams has increased significantly, but who’s going to care if it looks like you’ve just rolled out of bed?  The fact that you’ve even bothered shows your commitment to the meeting you’re attending.

Tip 2 (for those who wear make-up): far be it from me to dictate whether you wear make-up or not to meetings.  But if you choose to, there’s no need to refresh last night’s make-up in the morning.  If you’ve staggered home late, you may not have got round to removing your party lipstick and mascara, and it may even have smudged or run a bit: don’t worry.  It’ll look “festive” in the morning, and will encourage a relaxed atmosphere at the meeting.

Tip 3 (for coffee drinkers): you may need an extra cup of coffee in the afternoon, to get you through the day.  Who’s going to know if you add a shot to it?  It’ll keep you warm, and possibly upright.  My wife swears by Baileys.  Or Irish Whiskey.  Or gin.  Pretty much anything, in fact.

Tip 4 (for non-coffee drinkers): cocktails are a no-no for video conferences, unless approved by management (sorry).  However, there are a number of other options to explore.  A Long Island Iced Tea looks like, well, and iced tea.  Whisky (or whiskey) can look like normal tea, and my personal favourite, cherry brandy, looks like a child’s fruit cordial that you didn’t dilute sufficiently.  And tastes fairly similar.

Tip 5 (for clothes wearers): few organisations (of which I’m aware, anyway) have adopted a non-clothing policy for video-calls.  Clothes are required.  My favourite option is to wear a festive jumper, but this is only fun if it has woven-in flashing lights which can distract your fellow participants[3].  Coordinating the periodicity of the flashing with colleagues gets you bonus points.

Tip 6 (also for clothes wearers): wear something on your bottom half.  I know you think you may not be getting up during the call, but when a small child vomits in the background, the postal worker arrives at the door, or you just need another cup of coffee or “beverage” (see tips 3 & 4) to get you through the next two hours, you’ll be grateful for this advice.

Teleconferences (non-video)

Tip 7: use a chat channel to have a side conversation with your peers. You can have hilarious discussions about the intellectual capacity and likely parentage of your management, or even better, play a game of meeting bingo.

Tip 8: the mute button is for cowards.  Yes, wind can be a problem after an over-indulgence at the pub, club or party the night before, and microphones can be quite sensitive these days, but who’s to know it’s you[4]?

Emails

Tip 9: the best time to respond to an email is when you receive it, right?  This will show everybody how devoted you are to your job.  So if it arrives after you’ve already partaken of a brew or two down the pub, or sampled the herbal opportunities recently decriminalised in your state in your bedroom, then replying immediately will almost certainly be considered responsible and professional.  And auto-correct will almost certainly act in your favour: after all, your boss really is a complete duck, yes?

Tip 10: pepper your emails with poor festive puns[5].  It’s just what you do.

Family

Tip 11: you may have agreed to “work” over this period as an excuse to avoid spending too much time with the family[6], but there’s always the chance that they will barge into your office, throw up in the hall (see tip 6), or just fall asleep on your keyboard[7].  Invest in a lock on your office door, or work somewhere out of range[8].  Your work is important, and you must guard against unwanted interruptions, such as being awoken from an important doze.

Productivity

Tip 12: it’s your responsibility, when working from home, to ensure that you maintain your productivity.  But breaks are important.  There’s a tricky balance here between protecting your time from the family (you don’t want them to notice that you’re not online 100% of the time) and taking sensible amounts of breaks.  Assuming that you’ve taken my advice about locking your office door, then placing an XBox or similar gaming console on your desk next to your work computer is a great way of allowing yourself some downtime without risking the wrath of your family (assuming careful monitor placement and controller handling).

Tip 12a (extra tip!): if you’re not careful, too much time hidden away from the family will get you in trouble.  My piece of advice here is to offer to help.  But on your own terms.  Rushing out of your office[9], looking harried and then announcing “I’ve got ten minutes until my next call, and I’m feeling guilty: is there anything I can do?” can gain you useful credit without the risk of your having to do anything too taxing.

Summary[10]

You can maintain a productive and professional workplace at home if called to do so by your organisation.  It is your responsibility to balance the needs of work with your needs and, of course, the needs of your family.

Have a Merry Christmas (or other festival) and a Happy New Year (whenever it falls for you)!


1 – this is generally a Judaeo-Christian set of holidays, but I hope that this article is relevant to most holidays: religious, national, regional or secular.

2 – and possibly correlateable, though check out one of my favourite XKCD comics: https://xkcd.com/552/.

3 – owners of luxuriant beards or heads of hair may prefer to weave flashing fairy lights into their hair for a similar effect.

4 – except for the small matter of the little indicator against each participant’s name which shows who’s “talking”.

5 – “Your presents is requested.”  “But wait—there’s myrrh.” You get the idea.

6 – “Sorry, darling, I know your parents are here, but a really critical bug came in, and I’m the only one who can look at it in time…”

7 – mainly a problem for owners of cats or teenagers.

8 – try searching for “Where’s a pub near me that’s open now?”.

9 – don’t forget to lock it again, in case a child notices and purloins that gaming console.

10 – in the Southern Hemisphere, at least.  Sorry: see [5].

 

What’s a certificate?

For want of a nail, the kingdom was lost.

There was a huge story in the UK last week about how an expired certificate basically brought an entire mobile phone network (O2) to its knees. But what is a certificate, why do they expire, and why would that have such a big impact? In order to understand, let’s step back a bit and look at why you need certificates in the first place.

Let’s assume that two people, Alice and Bob, want to exchange some secret information. Let’s go further, and say that Bob is actually Bobcorp, Alice’s bank, and she wants to be able send and receive her bank statements in encrypted form. There are well established ways to do this, and the easiest way is for them to agree on a shared key that they use to both encrypt and decrypt each others’ messages. How do they agrees this key? Luckily, there are some clever ways in which they can manage a “handshake” between they two of them, even if they’ve not communicated before, which ends in their both having a copy of the key, without the chance of anybody else getting hold of it.

The problem is that Alice can’t actually be sure that she’s talking to Bobcorp (or vice versa). Bobcorp probably doesn’t mind, at this point, because he can ask Alice to provide her login credentials, which will allow him to authenticate her. But Alice really does care: she certainly shouldn’t be handing her login details to somebody – let’s call her “Eve” – who’s just pretending to be Bob.

The solution to this problems comes in two parts: certificates and Certificate Authorities (CAs). A CA is a well-known and trusted party with whom Bobcorp has already established a relationship: typically by providing company details, website details and the like. Bobcorp also creates and sends the CA a special key and very specific information about itself (maybe including the business name, address and website information). The CA, having established Bobcorp’s bona fides, creates a certificate for Bobcorp, incorporating the information that was requested – in fact, some of the information that Bobcorp sends the CA is usually in the form of a “self-signed certificate”, so pretty much all that the CA needs to do is provide its own signature.

Astute readers will be asking themselves: “How did this help? Alice still needs to trust the CA, right?” The answer is that she does. But there will typically be a very small number of CAs in comparison to Bobcorp-type companies, so all Alice needs to do is ensure that she can trust a few CAs, and she’s now good to go. In a Web-browsing scenario, Alice will usually have downloaded a browser which already has appropriate trust relationships with the main CAs built in. She can now perform safe handshakes with lots of companies, and as long as she (or her browser) checks that they provide certificates signed by a CA that she trusts, she’s relatively safe.

But there’s a twist. The certificates that the CA issues to Bobcorp (and others) typically have an expiration date on them. This isn’t just to provide the CA with a recurring revenue stream – though I’m sure that’s a nice benefit – but also in case Bobcorp’s situation changes: what if it has gone bankrupt, for instance, or changed its country of business?[1] So after a period of time (typically in the time frame of a year or two, but maybe less or more), Bobcorp needs to reapply to get a new certificate.

What if Bobcorp forgets? Well, when Alice visits Bobcorp’s site and the browser notices an expired certificate, it should want her not to proceed, and she shouldn’t give them any information until it’s renewed. This sounds like a pain, and it is: Bobcorp and its customers are going to be severely inconvenienced. Somebody within Bobcorp whose job it was to renew the certificate is going to be in trouble.

Life is even worse in the case where no actual people are involved. If, instead of Alice, we have an automated system A, and instead of Bob, we have an automated system, B. A still needs to trust that it’s talking to the real B in case an evil system E is pretending to be B, so certificates are still required. In this case, if, B’s certificate expires, A should quite rightly refuse to connect to it. This seems to have been what happened to cause the mobile data outage that O2 is blaming on Ericsson, one of its suppliers. There was no easy way to fix the problem, or tell the many, many A-type systems that may have been trying to communicate with the B system(s) to carry on regardless. And so, for want of a nail, the kingdom was lost.

The lesson? Avoid single points of failure, think about fall-back modes. And be ready to move to remedy unexpected errors. Quickly.


1 – there are also various mechanisms to revoke, or cancel, certificates but hey they are typically complex, ill-implemented in many cases, and consequently little-used.

Playing a game

I’m at an EU Cybercrime Summit today and yesterday.  This may not sound very exciting, and, maybe considering this, the organisers arranged a game for us to play yesterday.  It was a simulation of a couple of different, but connected scenarios, and there was a web interface via which we could all interact with the engine.

The first scenario revolved around managing an attack on a piece of critical national infrastructure: we were acting as the CISO, and trying to work out our best course of action in terms of managing responses and communicating with various external agencies.  The second scenario had us as the head of a national cybersecurity agency, watching and trying to manage an emerging set of issues, including a Meltdown/Spectre-type vulnerability and various piggy-backed attacks.

At each stage, there was some explanation, and then a serious of options for us to choose, along with a countdown, adding an element of tension to the process as we had to submit our answers[1].  Sometimes we had to choose a single option – “How serious is this issue? Not an issue; minor; substantial; significant; major; national crisis; international crisis” – and sometimes we could choose two or more – “Who will you inform about this?  Internal only; trusted parties; national cybersecurity bodies; national intelligence; international parties.”  We were encouraged to discuss our choices with our neighbours before we made them, and once all the answers were in, bar charts were displayed on the screen in front of us (and on our devices) showing how everbody had voted.

At the beginning of the process, we had been asked to enter some basic information about ourselves such as sector (public, industry, academic, etc.) and expertise (security, policy, justice, etc.), and for some of the bar charts, a further breakdown as given, showing how the sector and expertise voting had gone.  Experts at the front gave their opinions of the “correct” answers, and reactions as to how people had voted.

I’d not participated in a game/simulation like this before, and had no idea either how it would go, nor how beneficial it might be.  To my surprise, I enjoyed it and found it both interesting and educational.  The scenarios were broad enough that they were unlikely to be many people in the room who had expertise across all of the different issues, I enjoyed discussing my thoughts with a neighbour who I’d only met earlier that day, and then discussing with him whether we agreed with the experts’ views.

In short, it was a very useful exercise, and I’m wondering how I could apply it to my work in different contexts.  It was educational, fun, provided opportunities for forming relationships – we found ourselves discussing scenarios and issues with others around us – and allows for further analysis after the evene.t


1 – I’m not often one to link to external products, but this one seemed good, and has a free pricing tier: it was called Mentimeter. The game was run by AIT (Austrian Institute of Technology), Center for Digital Safety & Security.

Encryption “backdoor”? No, it’s an gaping archway.

Backdoors are just a non-starter.

Note: this is probably one of those posts where I should point out that the views expressed in this article aren’t necessarily those of my employer, Red Hat.  Though I hope that they are.

I understand that governments don’t like encryption. Well, to be fair, they like encryption for their stuff, but they don’t want criminals, or people who might be criminals to have it. The problem is that “people who might be criminals” means you and me[1]. I need encryption, and you need encryption. For banking, but business, for health records, for lots of things. This isn’t the first time I’ve blogged on this issue, and I actually compiled a list in a previous post, giving some examples of perfectly legal, perfectly appropriate reasons for “us” to be using encryption. I’ve even written about the importance of helping governments go about their business.

Unluckily, it seems that the Government of Australia has been paying insufficient attention to the points that I have[2] been making. It seems that they are hell-bent on passing a law that would require relevant organisations (the types of organisations listed are broad and ill-defined, in the coverage that I’ve seen) to provide a backdoor into individuals’ encrypted messages. Only for individuals, you’ll note, not blanket decryption.  Well, that’s a relief. And that was sarcasm.

The problem? Mathematics. Cryptography is based on mathematics. Much of it is actually quite simple, though some of it is admittedly complex. But you don’t argue with mathematics, and the mathematics say that you can’t just create a backdoor and have the rest of the scheme continue to be as secure.

Most existing encryption/decryption schemes[3] allow one party to send encrypted data to another with a single shared key. To decrypt, you need that key. In order to get that key, you either need to be one of the two parties (typically referred to as “Alice” and “Bob”), or hope that, as a malicious[5] third party (typically referred to as “Eve”[6]), you can do one of the following:

  1. get Alice or Bob to give you their key;
  2. get access to the key by looking at some or all of the encrypted messages;
  3. use a weakness in the encryption process to decrypt the messages.

Now, number 1 isn’t great if you don’t want Alice or Bob to know that you’re snooping on their messages. Number 2 is a protocol weakness, and designers of cryptographic protocols try very, very hard to avoid them. Number 3 is an implementation weakness, and reputable application developers will be try very, very hard to avoid those. What’s more, for applications which are open source, anyone can have a look at them, so putting them in on purpose isn’t likely to last for long.

Both 2 and 3 can lead to backdoors. But they’re not single-use backdoors, they’re gaping archways that anyone can find out about and exploit.

Would it be possible to design protocols that allowed a third party to hold a key for each encryption session, allowing individual sessions to be decrypted by a “trusted party” such as law enforcement? Yes, it would. But a) no-one with half a brain would knowingly use such a scheme[7]; b) the operational overhead of running such a scheme would be unmanageable; and c) it would only a matter of time before untrusted parties got access to the systems behind the scheme and misused it.

Backdoors are just a non-starter. Governments need to find sensible ways to perform legally approved surveillance, but encryption backdoors are not one of them.


1 – and I’m not even intentionally addressing any criminals who might be reading this article.

2 – quite eloquently, in my humble opinion.

3 – the two tend to go together as there isn’t much point in one without the other[4] .

4 – in most cases. You’d be surprised, though.

5 – at least as far as Alice and Bob are concerned.

6 – guess where the name of this blog originated?

7 – hint: not me, not you, and certainly not criminals.