Core values

WEIS attendees awaiting the eclipse

Follow the money; follow the incentives.

Cybersecurity is an intractable problem for many of the same reasons climate change is: often the people paying the cost are not the people who derive the benefits. The foundation of the Workshop on the Economics of Information Security is often traced to the 2001 paper Why Information Security is Hard, by the late Ross Anderson. There were earlier hints, most notably in the 1999 paper Users Are Not the Enemy by Angela Sasse and Anne Adams.

Anderson’s paper directly examined and highlighted the influence of incentives on security behavior. Sasse’s paper was ostensibly about password policies and the need to consider human factors in designing them. But hidden underneath was the fact that the company department that called her in was not the IT team or the help desk team but accounting. Help desk costs to support users who forgot their passwords were rising so fast they threatened to swamp the company.

At the 23rd WEIS, held this week in Dallas (see also 2020), papers studied questions like which values drive people’s decisions when hit by ransomware attacks (Zinaida Benenson); whether the psychological phenomenon of delay discounting could be used to understand the security choices people make (Einar Snekkenes); and whether a labeling scheme would help get people to pay for security (L Jean Camp).

The latter study found that if you keep the label simple, people will actually pay for security. It’s a seemingly small but important point: throughout the history of personal computing, security competes with so many other imperatives that it’s rarely a factor in purchasing decisions. Among those other imperatives: cost, convenience, compatibility with others, and ease of use. But also: it remains near-impossible to evaluate how secure a product or provider is. Only the largest companies are in a position to ask detailed questions of cloud providers, for example,

Or, in an example provided by Chitra Marti, rare is the patient who can choose a hospital based on the security arrangements it has in place to protect its data. Marti asked a question I haven’t seen before: what is the role of market concentration in cybersecurity? To get at this, Marti looked at the decade’s experience of electronic medical records in hospitals since the big post-2008 recession push to digitize. Since 2010, more than 150 million records have been breached.

Of course, monoculture is a known problem in cybersecurity as it is in agriculture: if every machine runs the same software all machines are vulnerable to the same attacks. Similarly, the downsides of monopoly – poorer service, higher prices, lower quality – are well known. Marti’s study tying the two together found correlations in the software hospitals run and rarely change, even after a breach, though they do adopt new security measures. Hospitals choose software vendors for all sorts of reasons such as popularity, widspread use in their locality, or market leadership. The difficulty of deciding to change may be exacerbated by positive benefits to their existing choice that would be lost and outweigh the negatives.

These broader incentives help explain, as Richard Clayton set out, why distributed denial of service attacks remain so intractable. A key problem is “reflectors”, which amplify attacks by using spoofed IP addresses to send requests where the size of the response will dwarf the request. With this technique, a modest amount of outgoing traffic lands a flood on the chosen target (the one whose IP address has been spoofed). Fixing infrastructure to prevent these reflectors is tedious and only prevents damage to others. Plus, the provider involved may have to sacrifice the money they are paid to carry the traffic. For reasons like these, over the years the size of DDoS attacks has grown until only the largest anti-DDoS providers can cope with them. These realities are also why the early effort to push providers to fix their systems – RFC 2267 – failed. The incentives, in classic WEIS terms, are misaligned.

Clayton was able to use the traffic data he was already collecting to create a short list of the largest reflected amplified DDoS attacks each week and post it on a private Slack channel so providers could inspect their logs to trace it back to the source

At this point a surprising thing happened: the effort made a difference. Reflected amplified attacks dropped noticeably. The reasons, he and Ben Collier argue in their paper, have to do with the social connections among network engineers, the most senior of whom helped connect the early Internet and have decades-old personal relationships with their peers that have been sustained through forums such as NANOG and M3AAWG. This social capital and shared set of values kicked in when Clayton’s action lists moved the problem from abuse teams into the purview of network engineer s. Individual engineers began racing ahead; Amazon recently highlighted AWS engineer Tom Scholl’s work tracing back traffic and getting attacks stopped.

Clayton concluded by proposing “infrastructural capital” to cover the mix of human relationships and the position in the infrastructure that makes them matter. It’s a reminder that underneath those giant technology companies there still lurks the older ethos on which the Internet was founded, and humans whose incentives are entirely different from profit-making. And also: that sometimes intractable problems can be made less intractable.

Illustrations: WEIS waits for the eclipse.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon.

Author: Wendy M. Grossman

Covering computers, freedom, and privacy since 1991.

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