Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

A FenceWhen I was about 13 years old, my neighbors put a pool in their back yard.  However, they failed to put a fence around it.  My sister at the time was only four years old, and there were many people her age in the neighborhood.  In our community there was an ordinance that required such fences, but the neighbors ignored it, as they did my parents’ pleas.

While you can question the wisdom of letting a four year old walk around on his or her own, at the time it was the norm for our community, and one day little Donald was on his own, dangling his feet in the neighbor’s unsupervised pool.  After running out of our house as fast as she could and pulling Donald away from the pool, my mother filed a complaint, causing the neighbors to have to pay a fine.  Donald’s parents could have sued.

Our neighbors created an attractive nuisance and needed to be held accountable. While not exactly the same, regularly updating your software with the latest versions does reduce a computer’s exposure to vulnerabilities.  What’s more, there is a well known network effect of doing so.  When you patch your software, not only do you protect your computer against attack by others, but you also prevent your computer from being used as a vehicle to attack others.  Put another way, not patching your software makes your system a nuisance to others.  The bad guys know this.  One study by Jianwei Zhuge, et al, shows that exploits often appear in the wild before or very shortly after a patch is released.  A position paper written by Ross Anderson, et al., for ENISA will tell you which vendors are better and which are worse at patching.

A new study released this week by people at the ETH, Google, and IBM shows that in the best case with Firefox, no more than 83% of users patch their browsers.  The worst case is Internet Explorer, where you are more than likely not to have the latest patch.

What does all this say?  First of all it says that Firefox is probably doing a pretty good job.  One wonders what is going on with the 17% of individuals who do not patch their browsers.  Perhaps we have another case of rational ignorance, as I discussed previously.  The study also says that Microsoft could do a better job.  Part of Microsoft’s problem is that they have previously released “security” patches that do more than fix security problems. Distribution of Windows Genuine Advantage, which has been called a form of spyware, degraded peoples’ trust in Microsoft.

Apple isn’t all that much better than Microsoft.  For one, their patch rates are actually slower than that of Microsoft.  For another, Safari 3 broke stuff, which is precisely why many people do not upgrade.  Sun and HP are even worse.

Much as we like to blame vendors, in some cases we have nobody to blame but ourselves.  Here is something to do.  Check that you are running the latest version of the software you use.  If you use anything more than the standard application suite for your computer, there is a very good chance you are out of date.

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No Evidence That Data Breach Privacy Laws Work

Have you ever received a notice that your data privacy has been breached?  What the heck does that mean anyway?  Most of the time what it means is that some piece of information that you wouldn’t normally disclose to others, like a credit card or your social security number, has been released unintentionally, and perhaps maliciously (e.g., stolen).  About five years ago states began passing data breach privacy laws that required authorized possessors of such information to report to victims when a breach occurred.  There were basically two goals for such laws:

  • Provide individuals warning that they may have suffered identity theft, so that they can take some steps to prevent it, like blocking a credit card or monitoring their credit reports; and
  • Provide a more general deterrent by embarrassing companies into behaving better. “Sunlight as a disinfectant,” as Justice Brandeis wrote.[1]

A study conducted by Sasha Romanosky, Rahul Telang, and Alessandro Acquisti at CMU found that as of yet there can be no correlation found between these laws and identity theft rates.  This could be for many reasons why the correlation isn’t there.  First, actual usage of the stolen information seems to be only a small percentage.  Second, it may be that just because a light has been shined doesn’t mean that there is anything the consumer will be capable or willing to do.  For instance, suppose you buy something at your-local-favorite-website.com.  They use a credit card or billing aggregation service that has its data stolen, and so that service reports to you that your data has been stolen.  You might not even understand what that service has to do with you.  Even if you do, what are the chances that you would be willing to not use your-local-favorite-website.com again?  And if you hear about such a break-in from someone else, would it matter to you?  Economists call that last one rational ignorance.  In other words, hear no evil, see no evil.

Add to all of this that some people have said that there are huge loopholes in some of the laws.  At WEIS and elsewhere several not-so-innovative approaches were discussed about how some firms are getting around the need to disclose.

This paper is not the final word on the subject, but clearly work needs to be done to improve these laws so that they have more impact.  As longitudinal studies go, this one isn’t very long.  It’s possible we’ll see benefits further down the road.

[1]  The Brandeis quote could be found in the paper I cited (which is why I used it).

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Time to Takedown: Successes and Failures

Takedown is a term used by Internet service providers and law enforcement officials that means the involuntary removal of a computer from the Internet.  For instance, if a computer has been compromised and is attacking other computers, a takedown is seemingly appropriate.  Tyler Moore and Richard Clayton have done some analysis on how long it takes to get a site off the net when it is doing something anti-social.  They look at about six different circumstances: phishing, defamation, child pornography, copyright violation, spam and bot sites, and generally fraudulent web sites.

Not surprisingly, firms such as banks that actively defend their brand are able to expunge hosts serving bogus content the fastest, and service providers are the most cooperative (the numbers cross jurisdictional boundaries).  Sites harboring material that exploit of children takes 10-100 times longer than banks.  That’s an enormous difference.  There are several likely reasons for this difference.  First, banks are acting in their clear best interest and do not mind shouting at whoever they need to shout at to get rid of material.  They’ve also likely developed strong relationships with service providers to speed the process.

The data on child protection is somewhat skewed by a single source, and that source had substantial jurisdictional issues, in as much as they did not feel empowered to deal directly with certain governments and service providers outside the UK, and in particular in the United States.  Worse, images that were removed had a tendency to re-appear on the very same web sites, indicating that either the site was re-compromised or it was poorly managed or both.

The data points to a clear need for stronger coordination by service providers throughout the world to protect children.  The fact that banks are able to be more successful in removing content that offends them demonstrates that it is possible when self-interest is a factor.

In the area of copyright violation, the RIAA has had success in removing sites that are clearly violating copyrights.  By injecting themselves into P2P networks the RIAA has been able to determine many sources of copyright violation.  The paper does not have a data source to analyze takedown periods.

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