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Thu, 15 May 2003

Polar bear attacks submarine

(Best read while listening to One of our Submarines is Missing by Thomas Dolby.)

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posted at: 13:09 | path: /fun | permanent link to this entry

How to improve corporate computer security in one easy move

Y'know, I don't do this stuff for a living no more. I really don't. But this story from Computerworld just rings true on so many levels that it's completely believable.

What's astounding is that this sort of thing still happens. For example, my copy of the UNIX research system papers (tenth edition, from 1990) contains a paper by Fred Grampp and Robert T. Morris (senior) on security that includes the following gem:

The most important and usually the only barrier to the unauthorized use of a UNIX [or other multiuser] system is the password that a user must utter in order to gain access to the system. Much attention has been paid to making the UNIX password scheme as secure as possible against would-be intruders ...

In practice it is easy to write programs that are extremely successful at extracting passwords from password files, and that are also very economical to run. They operate, however, by an indirect method that amounts to guessing what a user's password might be, and then trying over and over until the correct one is found.

Guess what -- this paper came out in the early 80's, when networked interactive timesharing systems (like this Macintosh Powerbook) were becoming common enough that attacks were commencing. And there are still big consultancies -- with responsibility for security at large companies -- where nobody seems to understand it.

It's not stupidity. These folks aren't stupid. But there's clearly a failing here, and I'd ascribe it to institutional culture. My experience of large consulting companies is that their analysts are more focussed on the appearance of professionalism than on the substance, more interested in looking trustworthy to the occupants of the boardroom -- walking the management walk, talking the management talk -- than in actually doing the job. And, just as bad money drives out good, the focus on client relationships drives out competence because clients like predictability, and good security cannot, by its very nature, be allowed to become predictable. (As witness the story in the link below.)

Structures. Human organisations that are fundamentally defective at the job in hand but that are more successful than competent organisations in the market because they're better at winning contracts. Predictability and security. (Is that an itch in my fingertips? I can feel a story coming on ...)

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posted at: 10:18 | path: /fun | permanent link to this entry


Is SF About to Go Blind? -- Popular Science article by Greg Mone
Unwirer -- an experiment in weblog mediated collaborative fiction
Inside the MIT Media Lab -- what it's like to spend a a day wandering around the Media Lab
"Nothing like this will be built again" -- inside a nuclear reactor complex

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