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Geekonomics: The Real Cost of Insecure Software [Hardcover]

David Rice
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Dec 9 2007 0321477898 978-0321477897 1

“The clarity of David’s argument and the strength of his conviction are truly inspiring. If you don’t believe the world of software affects the world in which you live, you owe it to yourself to read this book.”
–Lenny Zeltzer, SANS Institute faculty member and the New York Security Consulting Manager at Savvis, Inc.

 

Geekonomics stays with you long after you finish reading the book. You will reconsider every assumption you have had about software costs and benefits.”
–Slava Frid, Gemini Systems, CTO, Resilience Technology Solutions

 

“Information Security is an issue that concerns governments, companies and, increasingly, citizens. Are the computer systems and software to which we entrust our sensitive and critical information, technologies that are out of control? David Rice has written an important and welcome book that goes to the heart of this issue, and points to solutions that society as a whole needs to debate and embrace.”
–Nick Bleech, IT Security Director, Rolls-Royce

 

“If you are dependent upon software (and of course, all of us in the modern world are) this book is a fabulous discussion of how and why we should worry.”
–Becky Bace

 

The Real Cost of Insecure Software

•   In 1996, software defects in a Boeing 757 caused a crash that killed 70 people…

•   In 2003, a software vulnerability helped cause the largest U.S. power outage in decades…

•   In 2004, known software weaknesses let a hacker invade T-Mobile, capturing everything from passwords to Paris Hilton’s photos…

•   In 2005, 23,900 Toyota Priuses were recalled for software errors that could cause the cars to shut down at highway speeds…

•   In 2006 dubbed “The Year of Cybercrime,” 7,000 software vulnerabilities were discovered that hackers could use to access private information…

•   In 2007, operatives in two nations brazenly exploited software vulnerabilities to cripple the infrastructure and steal trade secrets from other sovereign nations…

Software has become crucial to the very survival of civilization. But badly written, insecure software is hurting people–and costing businesses and individuals billions of dollars every year. This must change. In Geekonomics, David Rice shows how we can change it.

 

Rice reveals why the software industry is rewarded for carelessness, and how we can revamp the industry’s incentives to get the reliability and security we desperately need and deserve. You’ll discover why the software industry still has shockingly little accountability–and what we must do to fix that.

Brilliantly written, utterly compelling, and thoroughly realistic, Geekonomics is a long-overdue call to arms. Whether you’re software user, decision maker, employee, or business owner this book will change your life…or even save it.

 

The Alarming Cost of Insecure, Badly Written Software...

and How to Finally Fix the Problem, Once and for All!

 

Six billion crash test dummies: why you’re at greater risk than you ever imagined.

You pay the price: why consumers are legally and financially responsible for the mistakes of software manufacturers.

Broken windows: how software promotes epidemic cyber crime and threatens national security.

Who runs the show?: Why software manufacturers fought against the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s attempts to protect the U.S. blood supply.

Protecting national infrastructure: real incentives for transforming software manufacturing.

Surviving the information superhighway: practical, must-read advice in a world of insecure code.

 

Preface xiii

Acknowledgments xix

About the Author xx

 

Chapter 1: The Foundation of Civilization 1

Chapter 2: Six Billion Crash Test Dummies: Irrational Innovation and Perverse Incentives 19

Chapter 3: The Power of Weaknesses: Broken Windows and National Security 73

Chapter 4: Myopic Oversight: Blinded by Speed, Baffled by Churn 131

Chapter 5: Absolute Immunity: You Couldn’t Sue Us Even If You Wanted To 179

Chapter 6: Open Source Software: Free, But at What Cost? 243

Chapter 7: Moving Forward: Rational Incentives for a Different Future 273

 

Epilogue 321

Notes 325

Index 341

 

 


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Product Description

About the Author

David Rice is an internationally recognized information security professional and an accomplished educator and visionary. For a decade he has advised, counseled, and defended global IT networks for government and private industry. David has been awarded by the U.S. Department of Defense for "significant contributions" advancing security of critical national infrastructure and global networks. Additionally, David has authored numerous IT security courses and publications, teaches for the prestigious SANS Institute, and has served as adjunct faculty at James Madison University. He is a frequent speaker at information security conferences and currently Director of The Monterey Group.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Extreme Programming Installed

Preface

You may or may not have an inkling of what insecure software is, how it impacts your life, or why you should be concerned. That is OK. This book attempts to introduce you to the full scope and consequence of software's impact on modern society without baffling the reader with jargon only experts understand or minutia only experts care about. The prerequisite for this book is merely a hint of curiosity.

Although we interact with software on a daily basis, carry it on our mobile phones, drive with it in our cars, fly with it in our planes, and use it in our home and business computers, software itself remains essentially shrouded—a ghost in the machine; a mystery that functions but only part of the time. And therein lays our problem.

Software is the stuff of modern infrastructure. Not only is software infused into a growing number of commercial products we purchase and services we use, but government increasingly uses software to manage the details of our lives, to allocate benefits and public services we enjoy as citizens, and to administer and defend the state as a whole. How and when we touch software and how and when it touches us is less our choice every day. The quality of this software matters greatly; the level of protection this software affords us from harm and exploitation matters even more.

As a case in point, in mid-2007 the country of Estonia, dubbed "the most wired nation in Europe" because of its pervasive use of computer networks for a wide array of private and public activities, had a significant portion of its national infrastructure crippled for over two weeks by cyber attacks launched from hundreds of thousands of individual computers that had been previously hijacked by Russian hackers. Estonia was so overwhelmed by the attacks Estonian leaders literally severed the country's connection to the Internet and with it the country's economic and communications lifeline to the rest of the world. As one Estonian official lamented, "We are back to the stone age." The reason for the cyber attack? The Russian government objected to Estonia's removal of a Soviet-era war memorial from the center of its capital Tallinn to a military cemetery.

The hundreds of thousands of individual computers that took part in the attack belonged to innocents; businesses, governments, and home users located around the world unaware their computers were used as weapons against another nation and another people. Such widespread hijacking was made possible in large part because of insecure software—software that, due to insufficient software manufacturing practices leaves defects in software that allows, among other things, hackers to hijack and remotely control computer systems. Traditional defensive measures employed by software buyers such as firewalls, anti-virus, and software patches did little to help Estonia and nothing to correct software manufacturing practices that enabled the attacks in the first place.

During the same year, an experienced "security researcher" (a euphemism for a hacker) from IBM's Internet Security Systems was able to remotely break into and hijack computer systems controlling a nuclear power plant in the United States. The plant's owners claimed their computer systems could not be accessed from the Internet. The owners were wrong. As the security researcher later stated after completing the exercise, "It turned out to be the easiest penetration test I'd ever done. By the first day, we had penetrated the network. Within a week, we were controlling a nuclear power plant. I thought, 'Gosh, this is a big problem.'"

Indeed it is.

According to IDC, a global market intelligence firm, 75 percent of computers having access to the Internet have been infected and are actively being used without the owner's knowledge to conduct cyber attacks, distribute unwanted email (spam), and support criminal and terrorist activities. To solely blame hackers or hundreds of thousands of innocent computer users, or misinformed—and some might say "sloppy"—power plant owners for the deplorable state of cyber security is shortsighted and distracts from the deeper issue. The proverbial butterfly that flaps its wings in Brazil causing a storm somewhere far away is no match for the consequences brought about by seemingly innocuous foibles of software manufacturers. As one analyst commented regarding insecure software as it related to hijacking of the nuclear reactor's computer systems, "These are simple bugs mistakes in software, but very dangerous ones."

The story of Estonia, the nuclear reactor, and thousands of similar news stories merely hint at the underlying problem of modern infrastructure. The "big problem" is insecure software and insecure software is everywhere. From our iPhones (which had a critical weakness in its software discovered merely two weeks after its release) to our laptops, from the XBOX to public utilities, from home computers to financial systems, insecure software is interconnected and woven more tightly into the fabric of civilization with each passing day and with it, as former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen observed, an unprecedented level of vulnerability. Insecure software is making us fragile, vulnerable, and weak.

The threat of global warming might be on everyone's lips, and the polar ice caps might indeed melt but not for a time. What is happening right now because of world-wide interconnection of insecure software gives social problems once limited by geography a new destructive range. Cyber criminals, terrorists, and even nation states are currently preying on millions upon millions of computer systems (and their owners) and using the proceeds to underwrite further crime, economic espionage, warfare, and terror. We are only now beginning to realize the enormity of the storm set upon us by the tiny fluttering of software manufacturing mistakes and the economic and social costs such mistakes impose. In 2007, "bad" software cost the United States roughly $180 billion; this amount represents nearly 40 percent of the U.S. military defense budget for the same year ($439 billion) or nearly 55 percent more than the estimated cost to the U.S. economy ($100 billion) of Hurricane Katrina, the costliest storm to hit the United States since Hurricane Andrew.1

Since the 1960s, individuals both within and outside the software community have worked hard to improve the quality, reliability, and security of software. Smart people have been looking out for you. For this, they should be commended. But the results of their efforts are mixed.

After 40 years of collaborative effort with software manufacturers to improve software quality, reliability, and security, Carnegie Mellon's Software Engineering Institute (SEI)—an important contributor to software research and improvement—declared in the year 2000 that software was getting worse, not better.. Such an announcement by SEI is tantamount to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warning that food quality in the twenty-first century is poorer now than when Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle in 1906.2 Unlike progress in a vast majority of areas related to consumer protection and national security, progress against "bad" software has been fitful at best.

While technical complications in software manufacturing might be in part to blame for the sorry state of software, this book argues that even if effective technical solutions were widely available, market incentives do not work for, but work against better, more secure software. This has worrisome consequences for us all.

Incentives matter. Human beings are notoriously complex and fickle creatures that will do whatever it takes to make themselves better off. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this behavior. People, looking out for their own best interests are what normal, rational human beings are want to do. However, the complication is that society is a morass of competing, misaligned, and conflicting incentives that leads to all manner of situations where one individual&...


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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Manage your expectations March 13 2008
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
First of all, you need to know that "Geekonomics" was written for non-professionals. If you want to find out how software quality and security affects the modern society or why you should be worried, the Book will certainly live up to your expectations. But don't fall for the Publisher's claim on the cover that it will tell you "how to finally fix the problem, once and for all".

Yes, the Author does have some ideas on how to deal with software crisis of our time. His suggestions are not technical; they are economic incentives to encourage software manufacturers to produce better, more reliable and more secure software. Great, but even the Author himself doesn't seem to think that any of them is easy to implement in real life.

Well, I happen to know a few things about software, and I have a problem with the term "software manufacturers" to start with. Software industry is very different from other industries, because software is not really manufactured. The process of its development is much more similar to design in traditional industries. It is, by its nature, a highly creative process, which cannot be completely automated, regulated, standardized or licensed, like it or not. And that is the reason why none of the Book's ideas sound realistic enough.

Sure, I share a lot of Author's concerns and indignation, but when he compares software with Portland cement, cars or screws, he can't be serious. Why? Because the software is incredibly diverse, and although some kinds of it might resemble cement, screws and cars, other kinds are more like thermometers, camcorders or space rockets, or everything in between. Most software, however, is hard to visualise or compare to anything else, and that's where the Book's analogies are deceiving.
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Amazon.com: 4.0 out of 5 stars  11 reviews
22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Geekonomics--Don't let the title fool you; this is serious stuff Dec 13 2007
By Stephen C. Few - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Every once in a while I encounter someone's work whose sanity of argument, integrity of passion, and elegance of expression convinces me in an instant that I have found a comrade. Recently reading the new book "Geekonomics" by David Rice was such an encounter. Rice is a prophet, and like most true prophets, what he is saying is something you won't like hearing. Geekonomics warns against the dangers of software. That's right--software--which we rely upon every day to a rapidly increasing degree. Rice is no crackpot or self-proclaimed guru looking to make a quick buck with this book. His warnings are akin to those of Alan Cooper in "The Inmates are Running the Asylum" and my own as well. While Cooper and I rail against software's inexcusable dysfunctionality, however, Rice points out very real dangers that threaten the world. Most software is bad, not just because it is much harder to use and far less effective than it ought to be; it is also insecure, which invites danger. The more we rely on software, the more vulnerable we are to the whims of those who would do harm.

Geekonomics explains the fundamental reasons why software of all types usually fails to deliver what we need, especially security, and the threat that this failure invites. The dangers that Rice describes are on the scale of global warming. Did this statement get your attention? Good, because it's true, and the magnitude and imminence of this problem deserves your attention. Just like the threat of global warming, we dare not ignore the threat of insecure software, because software has become the infrastructure of the modern world.

Geekonomics is not only an important book, it is also a good book. Rice is smart and thoughtful, and he knows how to write. If you rely on software (and who doesn't?), you should read this book. If you produce software, you should read this book. You might not like what you read, but you need to hear it, and we all need to do something about it.
18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A call to action for every man and woman Dec 24 2007
By Stephen Northcutt - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Depending on who you ask, mankind has survived on this planet for somewhere between 10,000 and 160,000 years. However, we are the first generation to be dependent on software. Geekonomics opens with a discussion of the importance of cement and how crucial it is to our civilization. From roads to sewers, cement is our infrastructure and I could not agree more. After the driest summer since they have been measuring such things, the rain has been falling and falling and falling and my farm is one big mudhole. Every unimproved road is dangerous and some of the asphalt is failing. So I am replacing and improving with cement. It is expensive, but cement roads will outlast me, my son and his sons. Software is as important to infrastructure as cement as a foundation of civilization asserts the author of Geekonomics, David Rice, but while considerable energy has been expended to normalize the manufacture and application of cement, much less work has been done with software.

While the cement roads we are putting in will last a hundred or more years, the author points out that software is often essentially obsolete by the time the consumer takes possession of it. In fact, consumers value innovation so much, that it is prized above security even if a quick look at the news shows us the cumulative effect of software failure leading to data breach. At this exact moment, according to privacyrights.org, 216,770,536 consumer records have been lost. As Rice points out, in the 1970s the criminal underground realized there was more money to be made, at less risk of being caught, trafficking in drugs than other forms of crime, so it became a big thing. In the past few years, the criminal underground is starting to focus on software, specifically vulnerabilities in software that can lead to data breaches that allow identity theft and credit card fraud.

As the book explains, crime begets crime, if you have a neighborhood with broken windows, this can lead to additional problems, criminals and other worthless fellows are comfortable hanging out and doing whatever they want to do. This too, I have seen in my own life, one of my employees has had to abandon her home for a few weeks. The condominium above her had a broken window that was used to enter that home and people took up residence in the empty foreclosed home. They invited their friends and now the entire complex is less desirable. Geekonomics lists the positive example of the New York Subway system's clean car program, that all cars had to be clean with no graffiti, if a car could not be cleaned it was taken out of service until it was clean. This has lead to a major improvement in the security and user experience of the subway system. However, as the author points out, you can see graffiti, you cannot necessarily see the flaws in software that attract the criminal elements.

Another interesting comparison the book makes is the interstate highway system in the US. It was designed for safety from the beginning and is a critical part of the national infrastructure. If you want to go somewhere you can. For all its costs, having this infrastructure in place saves far more money, imagine trying to get fresh milk to market over muddy, pot hole filled roads. However the Internet, which is the software analog of the highway system was not built for safety and may well not scale to growth as well as the highway system has.
The book continues example after example to show how our legal system does not aid the consumer to receive quality and safety from software, but if fact makes the problem worse. Rice does not simply dwell on problems, after strongly establishing his case, he points the way to the changes that need to take place if we, the first generation to be truly dependent on software are going to prosper. This is an important book, it does not require knowledge of IT or software development to read, every thinking man and woman should read this book and ask, what can I do? Standards, quality and making incentives achieve the results we want and deserve are key. As the author says, "I believe we have not gone too far down the path to alter course, but we aren't trying hard enough yet." That is the call to action, write your legislator, lobby consumer organizations, do what you can, but advocate rational software. Thank you David Rice.
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The future of software is legal Dec 31 2007
By Richard Bejtlich - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I really, really liked Geekonomics, and I think all security and even technology professionals should read it. Why not give the book five stars then? The reasons are twofold: 1) the book fails to adequately differentiate between safety and security; and 2) the chapter on open source demonstrates fundamental misconceptions that unfortunately detract from the author's message. If you are kind enough to keep the thoughts in this review in mind when reading Geekonomics, you will find the book to be thoughtful and exceptionally helpful.

It is important to remember that Geekonomics is almost exclusively a vulnerability-centric book. Remember that the "risk equation" is usually stated as "risk = vulnerability X threat X impact". While it is silly to assign numbers to these factors, you can see that decreasing vulnerability while keeping threat and impact constant results in decreased risk. This is the author's thesis. Rice believes the governing issue in software security is the need to reduce vulnerability.

The problem with this approach is that life is vulnerability. It is simply too difficult to eliminate enough vulnerability in order to reduce risk in the real world. Most real world security is accomplished by reducing threats. In other words, the average citizen does not reduce the risk of being murdered by wearing an electrified, mechanized armor suit, thereby mitigating the vulnerability of his soft flesh and breakable neck. Instead, he relies on the country's legal system and police force to deter, investigate, apprehend, prosecute, and incarcerate threats.

Consider now the issue of safety vs security. The author makes comparisons using the London sewer, various aspects of driving, and the New York subway system. Especially in the first two cases, these are exclusively issues of safety, not security. What is the difference? Safety incidents happen because a system fails. Security incidents happen because an intelligent adversary exploits a system. The outcome of the London sewer and driving cases would be much different if the Nazis were bombing the sewer system or Mad Max was shooting at cars or blowing holes in pavement. In short, the author cannot suggest that an approach that works against a safety problem is going to succeed against a security problem. Security problems are more dynamic because the threat perceives, adapts, and returns in ways unexpected by the victim.

As far as open source goes (ch 6), the author makes several statements which show he does not understand the open source world. First, on p 247 the author states "While a binary is easy for a computer to read, it is tremendously difficult for a person -- even the original developer -- to understand." This is absolutely false, and the misunderstandings continue in the same paragraph. Reverse engineering techniques can determine how binaries operate, even to the point that organizations like the Zeroday Emergency Response Team (ZERT) provide patches for Microsoft vulnerabilities without having access to source code!

Second, on p 248 the author states "The essence of open source software is the exact opposite of proprietary software. Open source software is largely an innovation after-the-fact; that is, open source software builds upon an idea already in the marketplace that can be easily replicated or copied." On what planet?

Third, on p 263 the author states "[O]pen source projects are almost always threatened by foreclosure," meaning if the developer loses interest the users are doomed. That claim totally misses the power of open source. When a proprietary software vendor stops coding a product, the customers are out of luck. When an open source software developer stops coding a product, the customers are NOT out of luck. They can 1) hope someone else continues the project; 2) try continuing the project themselves; or 3) hire someone else to continue developing the product. Finally, if the author is worried about open source projects not having an organization upon which liability could be enforced, he should consider the many vendors who sell open source software.

Why then did I love Geekonomics? Aside from these two issues, the rest of the book is excellent. The legal chapter alone would be enough to justify reading the book. Although I took introductory law in college, ch 5 put the law into context for my professional industry (digital security). The author's discussions of disorder, churn, software buyers as crash dummies, adhesion contracts, strict liability, aero charts as products, and many other areas are spot-on and eloquently discussed. I disagree with the author's recommendation for a vulnerability tax, but the fact we can have the discussion is really powerful. (How in the world could vulnerabilities be measured in order to be taxed? Why weren't auto makers taxed for "unsafe" cars? If cars were being bombed on the highway, would auto makers be taxed? And so on.)

I'll leave the platitudes to the previous reviews, but suffice it to say that you should read Geekonomics. The future of software is legal, and Geekonomics is an incredible way to understand what is happening in our industry.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Lots to Think About Jan. 5 2008
By David Shackleford - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Anyone that knows me at all can tell you that I am not a fan of Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt (FUD) in making the case for effectively managing risk. As a professional in the information security business, it is all too easy to use FUD as the "easy way out" when trying to convince people of the severity of vulnerabilities and so on. I am pleased to say that David does not employ this tactic in his book. He makes a very reasoned case, building it with example after example of how poorly software is constructed and how deep the rabbit hole goes in software manufacturers' efforts at liability avoidance.

So far, the reviewers of this book are all "security people". Please know that there are caveats to such reviews - namely, we are always looking for the "aha" publications that tell the rest of the world what we have known for a while now. This is one of those, and it may very well be the first I've really enjoyed while trying to put myself in the shoes of the "average computer user" in the world today. My usual way of doing this is by asking myself "Will my mom understand this?" I'm very pleased to report that my mom could in fact "get" the big picture David is painting here - namely, that software is something we are relying on as a critical part of society today, and it is just as fundamentally flawed as the early sewer systems he describes early in the book.

What's great about this book, aside from the points already articulated by the other reviewers, is that it takes a problem we all know exists (most software is crappy) and forces you to look at it from a number of different angles. How many books do you read in a year that actually cause you to ask yourself questions? Probably very few, I'd guess. This is a book that challenges you to think about things differently; for instance, a Windows system crashing is not just a "Blue Screen of Death" on your home PC, it's now a critical system controlling a local power grid that just went down. It's not just a poorly-written piece of Web server software, it's a perfectly viable avenue of electronic data theft. And by the way, this little problem affects every one of us. Bravo, David, you've done a great job here. I tend to agree with Richard Bejtlich that a "vulnerability tax" is somewhat infeasible, but at least we're having some interesting conversations. Change usually stems from these, and change is exactly what's on the menu.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Comprehensive Feb. 24 2008
By J. Routh - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This book offers one of the most comprehensive and rational arguments for fundamental changes to the way software is developed and made commercially available. In addition, the author provides several alternatives for these fundamental changes the business of providing software along with a recommended approach that is practical and thoughtful.
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