A cybersecurity tip from Hazzard County

Don’t place that bet in Boss Hogg’s betting saloon: you know he’s up to no good!

It’s a slightly guilty secret, but I used to love watching The Dukes of Hazzard in the early 80’s (the first series started in late 1979, but I suspect that it didn’t make it to the UK until the next year at the earliest).  It all seemed very glamourous, and there were lots of fast car chases.  And a basset hound, which was an extra win.  To say this was early days for cybersecurity would be an understatement, and though there are references in the Wikipedia plot summaries to computers, I can’t honestly say that I remember any of those particular episodes.

One episode has stuck with me, however, for reasons that I can’t fathom.  It’s called “Hazzard Hustle” and (*SPOILER ALERT*) in it, Boss Hogg sets up a crooked betting saloon.  The swindle (if I remember it correctly) is that he controls and delays the supposedly live feeds to the TVs in the saloon, which means that he has access to results before they come in.  Needless to say, the Duke boys (probably aided and abetted by Daisy Duke) get the better of him in the end, and everything turns out OK (for them, not Boss Hogg).

“What can this have to do with cybersecurity?” you have every right to ask.  Well, the answer is reporting and monitoring channels.  Monitoring is important because without it, there is no way for us to check that what we believe should be happening actually is.  The opportunities for direct sensory monitoring of actions in computer-based systems are limited: if I request via a web browser that a banking application transfers funds between one account and another, the only visible effect that I am likely to see is an acknowledgement on the screen. Until I actually try to spend or withdraw that money, I realistically have no way to be assured that the transactions has taken place.

Let’s take an example from the human realm.  It is as if I have a trust relationship with somebody around the corner of a street, out of view, that she will raise a red flag at the stroke of noon, and I have a friend, standing on the corner, who will watch her, and tell me when and if she raises the flag. I may be happy with this arrangement, but only because I have a trust relationship to the friend: that friend is acting as a trusted channel for information.

The word “friend” was chosen carefully above, because there is a trust relationship already implicit in the term. The same is not true for the word “somebody”, which I used to describe the person who was to raise the flag. The situation as described above is likely to make our minds presume that there is a fairly high probability that the trust relationship I have to the friend is sufficient to assure me that he will pass the information correctly. But what if my friend is actually a business partner of the flag-waver? Given our human understanding of the trust relationships typically involved with business partnerships, we may immediately begin to assume that my friend’s motivations in respect to correct reporting are not neutral.

The channels for reporting on actions – monitoring them – are vitally important within cybersecurity, and it is both easy and dangerous to fall into the trap of assuming that they are neutral, and that the only important one is between me and the acting party. In reality, the trust relationship that I have to a set of channels is key to the maintenance of the trust relationships that I have to the key entity that they monitor. In trust relationships involving computer systems, there are often multiple entities or components involved in actions, and these form a “chain of trust”, where each link depends on the other, and the chain is typically only as strong as the weakest of its links.  Don’t forget that.  Oh, and don’t place that bet in Boss Hogg’s betting saloon: you know he’s up to no good!

Author: Mike Bursell

Long-time Open Source and Linux bod, distributed systems security, etc.. Now employed by Red Hat. マイク・バーゼル: オープンソースとLinuxに長く従事。他にも分散セキュリティシステムなども手がける。現在Red Hatのチーフセキュリティアーキテクト

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