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[ISN] What's the Biggest Security Problem?
April 15, 2003
Experts, hackers debate cyberterror, digital teens, and holey
SAN FRANCISCO -- Cyberterrorism is a joke, organized crime syndicates
grow their own hackers, and the greatest threat to e-commerce is a
metaphorical "angry Bulgarian teenager," said security experts in a
lively panel here.
The sometimes serious, sometimes riotously funny debate covered many
of the most pressing computer security threats of the day.
Participants were reformed former hacker Kevin Mitnick; Maryann
Davidson, Oracle's chief security officer; Gregor Freund, Zone Labs'
chief executive; and Jeff Moss, organizer of the Black Hat security
"Generally, cyberterrorism is considered a joke. You're much more
likely to piss off some teenagers in Bulgaria than Hezbollah," Moss
said, referring to the Palestinian terrorist organization. "If you can
defend [your networks] against teenagers, you can defend against
Oracle's Davidson decried how quickly today's malicious hackers can
turn a just-announced software vulnerability into a usable hacking
"The gap between a theoretical exploit to a practical hack has gone
from weeks, to days, to hours," she said.
The telecommunications networks are a weak spot, noted Mitnick--and he
should know. He spent years evading capture while manipulating
telephone networks. "The possibility that an outsider can compromise a
telecom provider is pretty likely," he said.
But a cyberattack alone is unlikely to do much real damage. "If our
enemies were going to attack, they would have to combine a physical
and a cyberattack to increase the likelihood of casualties," Mitnick
"What's the worst that could happen? They'd DOS my site and knock it
off the Web for a couple of hours or a day," Moss said, referring to
the common denial-of-service attack.
But Zone Labs' Freund cautioned that hackers are organizing and
hacking for a cause.
"There's a major shift from kids with no motivation to go after
particular companies, to targeted attacks against specific
businesses," he said.
Cybercrime by organized groups is on the rise, Moss agreed. "When you
look at the attacks on the Web, the criminals are the innovators while
the terrorists are playing catch-up. When you look at who is doing
interesting attacks, it's all organized crime."
Moss recounted receiving mysterious telephone calls late at night, a
few years after he started hosting the annual DefCon hackers
convention. The caller, whom Moss suspected of being involved in
organized crime or an FBI agent, asked for his help with "theoretical"
problems involving breaking into PC and phone networks.
The calls stopped in 1998, which "either meant they decided to do
something else, or they just got good enough that they didn't need
hackers anymore," Moss said. "Their own guys were taking computer
Security problems with operating systems and applications create an
ongoing challenge to keep database software secure, said Oracle's
"The state of security in the software industry is 'don't worry, be
crappy,'" she said.
Davidson says analysts estimate a business pays $900 to patch a
server, and $700 to patch a client. Multiply those figures by the
number of systems a company has, and then by the number of patches
required each year, and it's evident how expensive fixing bugs can be,
she said. Yet software holes continue to surface, the panelists noted.
"We can't always count on customers to pick the most secure
[product]," said Moss. "I think they'll always buy the blinky, shiny
And Mitnick quipped, "You can't go to Windows Update and get a patch
Moss also cited weaknesses in the BIND domain name system and other
low-level problems with common network protocols.
"The fundamental structure of everything we depend on for the Internet
is fundamentally broken," Moss said. "I'm jaded, but I still want to
Security's Silver Lining
In the end, the panelists named software vulnerabilities the key
security challenge--far above hackers or terrorists.
"Software products have to be designed like Cuisinarts," Davidson
suggested. "With one of those food processors, you have to really try
hard to be able to run it in a dangerous way and get your hand in
there. Software needs to be more like that."
What's more, buggy software and frequent security patches keep
software companies from focusing on creating software that fixes more
fundamental problems, they said.
"The security industry isn't happy that all these bad things happen,"
Moss noted, "But we have job security for life."
"You have a legion of people fixing the most basic security problems,
getting burned out," Moss added. "I can't just look at the software
itself anymore; I have to analyze the culture of software companies.
It's almost a full-time job to purchase a product now."
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