The big data security news this week is, of course, the WannaCry ransomware situation that reared its head last Friday, continued to grow over the weekend, and threatened to really become something had it not been for a serendipity: a kill-switch, possibly a mistake, baked into the malware.
Many organizations and traditional news outlets have covered the situation from every angle possible, including:
- More attacks coming.
- Could North Korea be involved?
- “Hero” security researcher doxxed by mainstream UK media.
- Hackers not really raking it in because Bitcoin is complicated stuff.
Of all the different reports and thought-pieces, though, this one might be the most controversial:
One could be excused for thinking that Microsoft is just engaging in PR, passing the buck, refusing to shoulder responsibility, etc. After all, the ransomware hijacks a flaw that’s been present in every single Microsoft operating system since Windows XP. That makes it a 15-year old flaw… and it means that Microsoft had 15 years to identify it and fix it. It certainly paints a bad picture for Redmond. However, blame cannot fall on Microsoft alone: for Act II, the same or different hackers could decide to target a flaw that’s found in Apple’s operating system or any of the various flavors of Linux. What’s to stop them? After all, this latest attack, global in nature, was enabled by the leak of NSA hacking tools. And if rumors are true, the agency must have methods for exploiting weaknesses besides those found in Windows.
It’s not a secret that intelligence agencies make use of flaws (in fact, some have accused them of “hoarding” flaws). And now, unsanctioned hackers are getting into the game as well, in a big way, thanks to those same hoarded flaws leaked via WikiLeaks.
An argument could be made that the flaws couldn’t have been exploited if, instead of keeping a tight lid on them, the government had alerted companies of the flaw so they could fix it, or if the government had actually managed to keep a tight lid on things. But then again, agencies like the NSA are not in the business of identifying flaws and having these patched up. That’s not their raison d’être. In fact, disgusting as it may be, it feels a little silly to criticize them for doing exactly what they were chartered to do. It’d be like criticizing a dominatrix for inflicting pain and humiliation.
Another reason why you can’t put all the blame on the government: there is some heft to the observation that Microsoft worked to fan the flames by coming up with a patch back in March, but allowing only paying customers to access it. One could argue that, NSA hoarding flaws or not, the situation would have been dampened if Microsoft hadn’t tried to monetize the patch.
Regardless of who you think is “responsible” for what happened, the disaster shows exactly why a security backdoor is a bad idea.
Flaws => Backdoors
Last year, the FBI took Apple to task for refusing to cooperate with a certain demand: that the company somehow provide a backdoor to encrypted iPhones. Of course, the FBI never said outright that they wanted a backdoor. But, in the end, it was exactly what they were arguing for.
The counterargument from Apple and the rest of the technology sector was that backdoors cannot be completely controlled and thus will never be safe, a tune that data security professionals have been singing since the early 1990s. The tech sector’s argument went so far as to imply that nothing less than the security of the free world was at stake. Many called such arguments spurious and melodramatic. An overhyped situation just like the Y2K bug scare (although, some argue that it’s because a scared-witless world poured billions into the problem to fix it in time that the threat never materialized).
As long as the situation remained theoretical, such criticism had a foot to stand on. But, with the temporary shutdown of an entire country’s healthcare network (the UK’s National Health Service) in our rearview mirror, it’s hard to imagine that the tech sector’s arguments can still fall on deaf ears. When it comes to data security, unintended flaws and purposefully placed backdoors are essentially the same because they lead to the same situation: at some point, someone who shouldn’t know about it is bound to find it and exploit it.
The many data security scares in the past, for all their coverage in the media, scarcely managed to turn fast-held opinions on the “need” for a backdoor. Some went as far as stating that they were sure that the brilliant minds behind encryption would find a way to create a secure backdoor that is inaccessible by the bad guys. (Despite the fact that the same brilliant minds were emphatic that it couldn’t be done).
One wonders how they could have been (and, possibly, currently are) so deluded. Perhaps it was because there wasn’t a visceral-enough crisis to jolt their thoughts on what could be. Or, perhaps they thought that what could be wasn’t really going to happen, at least not in their lifetime. This latest development will hopefully work to dampen their misguided but well-intentioned enthusiasm for hamstringing security, at least for the time being.
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