Security through obscurity is plain dumb

Hiding stuff just doesn't help

If there is one security technique that has proven to be as effective and realistic as keeping diamonds safe in a paper bag it is security through obscurity.

The idea of security through obscurity is an old one: In the desk there's the hidden compartment for the property deeds. Or there's the secret door that looks like a bookcase that leads to the vault and the key to the vault is hidden in the suit of armour.

The problem is that these ploys are always overturned by the simplest events. Scooby-Doo jumps on the desk looking for a Scooby snack and the desk breaks revealing the hidden compartment. Shaggy casually leans on the bookcase pressing the false book spine that unlocks the door and he falls through. Velma runs into the suit of armour and knocks it over, sending the key flying through the air to land in Shaggy's hand.

But apparently these well-documented examples of the weakness of security through obscurity have not been enough for some people. Not convinced by the incontrovertible evidence demonstrated by Scooby-Doo and friends, some companies will persist in believing that hiding stuff will keep it safe.

But, that said, it is one thing for a company to believe that security through obscurity will work and quite another for that company to provide a tool that makes it possible for selected people to get around that security.

At this point you might be thinking, "Wow! Now that's dumb. It couldn't get any worse!" And guess what, my friend, you'd be wrong because, if that company should then tell the world about what they've done, well, they are sitting ducks for anyone who is clever enough and has enough time to figure out how to break the security.

As you might guess, I have an example of this insane thinking for you. And lest you think my example concerns some young, naive, dementedly optimistic startup, let me disabuse you of the notion: The company in question is . . . wait for it, wait for it ... yes, it's Microsoft!

According to several sources, including The Seattle Times, Microsoft has a tool called COFEE — Computer Online Forensic Evidence Extractor — that the company has made available to some law enforcement agencies. Consisting of a USB drive that reportedly provides 150 special programs that make decrypting and analysing the contents of Windows-based computers much easier, COFEE has been distributed to more than 2,000 officers in 15 countries.

Now, Microsoft isn't doing this as a public service. Oh no. When the details of COFEE were revealed by Microsoft, General Counsel Brad Smith at a conference last week admitted the company had a profit motive.

What I find so incredible about this is that no matter how much effort Microsoft puts into keeping the COFEE devices under control, one or more will eventually get lost or stolen or duplicated. Worse still is that Microsoft is making it publicly clear that there are techniques that make "cracking" Windows easier and more effective. This in turn tells every hacker out there that more opportunities are just waiting for them!

Enterprise IT should consider the implications of this revelation carefully. If you are big users of Microsoft products and these techniques become widespread and exploited — which they will — it is going to take some insane number of updates for Microsoft to patch all of the vulnerabilities. Worse still, there's going to be the inevitable delays and mistakes that will leave your network exposed and you probably won't even know it!

The only reason that this mess exists at all is that Windows is a family of closed, proprietary operating systems that can't be properly audited and that have problems that Microsoft doesn't have to be honest about. Open source operating systems have never looked so good!

So, we know that Scooby, Shaggy and Velma can accidentally break security through obscurity, just imagine what a motivated hacker could do.

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Mark Gibbs

PC Advisor (UK)
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