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Are we feeling safer yet?

Analyst Pete Lindstrom says the Lynn furor raises key questions about Internet security

By Pete Lindstrom
August 2, 2005 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Last week, Mike Lynn, a researcher formerly working for Internet Security Systems Inc. (ISS), gave a presentation at the Black Hat conference on the internal workings of Cisco Systems Inc.'s Internetworking Operating System (IOS) and exploit techniques that, in short, rocked the security world, created quite a legal stir and caused some security pundits to accuse the usual characters (big business) of being "thugs."
This commentary isn't about whether Cisco and ISS acted like thugs or whether Mike Lynn broke the law (see ISS researcher quits job to detail Cisco flaws). That's a very interesting discussion, but not for practical-minded enterprises that need to understand the nature of the information that's now in wide release. The real question for enterprise security professionals should be, "Are we safer based on this new information?"
As is always the case, Lynn and those rallying behind his cause claim that presentations like his make the world a safer place. I am going to go out on a limb and suggest a definition for "safer" that simply means we are less likely (either collectively or as individual entities) to suffer a loss now that this information is available. So the true test for anyone wanting to provide this information is whether the net effect is a higher or lower risk of loss; higher risk equals less safe, and lower risk equals a safer environment.
In assessing the risk, it's important to fully evaluate both the external threat environment and the vulnerability of the target. In cases of disclosure, threats (potential attackers) and vulnerabilities (target weaknesses) are intended to oppose each other so that the higher risk associated with the increased threat after disclosure should be more than offset by the reduced vulnerability level to create a lower-risk, safer environment.
In the case of Lynn's research and any other "how-tos" on vulnerabilities and exploits, the threat increases when more of the likely attackers gain access to information they didn't previously have nor could they have developed. The effect is to support their efforts toward developing exploits to compromise systems. With the publication now available to every likely attacker with Internet access, the threat is certainly increased. We see evidence of this increased threat routinely in security advisories that come out announcing new vulnerabilities, and it's borne out often in the form of worms like Blaster and Sasser.
Since the increased threat level is obvious -- in fact, in Lynn's case, there are already reports out of DefCon of hackers working "around the clock" to create new exploits against Cisco (see "Hackers at DefCon race to expose Cisco Internet flaw")

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