Today, I found out that my blog entry on the BlueHat blog drew more feedback than I had thought. I am consistently surprised that people read the things that I write.
Reading my blog post again, I find it so terse I feel I have to apologize for it and explain how it ended up this way. It was the last day of Bluehat, and I was very tired. Those that know me know me well know that my sense of humor is difficult at the best of times. I have a great talent of sounding bitter and sarcastic when in fact I am trying to be funny and friendly (this had lead to many unfortunate situations in my life :-). So I sat down and tried to write a funny blog post. I was quite happy with it when it was done.
In an attack of unexpected sanity, I decided that someone else should read over the post, so I asked Nitin, a very smart (and outrageously polite) MS engineer. He read it, and told me (in his usual very polite manner) ... that the post sucked. I have to be eternally thankful to him, because truly, it did. Thanks Nitin !
So I deleted it, and decided that writing down just the core points of the first post. I removed all ill-conceived attempts at humor, which made the post almost readable. It also limited the room for potential misunderstandings.
I would like to clarify a few things that seem to have been misunderstood though:
I did not say "hackers have to" move to greener pastures. I said "hackers will move to greener pastures for a while". This is a very important distinction. In order to clarify this, I will have to draw a bit of a larger arc:
Attackers are, at their heart, opportunists. Attacks go by the old basketball saying about jumpshot technique: "Whoever scores is right". There is no "wrong" way of compromising a system. Success counts, and very little else.
When attackers pick targets, they consider the following dimensions:
- Strategic position of the target. I will not go into this (albeit important) point too deeply. Let's just assume that, since we're discussing Vista (a desktop OS), the attacker has made up his mind and wishes to compromise a client machine.
- Impact by market share: The more people you can hack, the better. A widely-installed piece of software beats a non-widely installed piece of software in most cases. There's many ways of doing this (Personal estimates, Gartner reports, internet-wide scans etc.).
- Wiggle Room: How many ways are there for the attacker to interact with the software ? How much functionality does the software have that operates on potentially attacker-supplied data ? If there are many ways to interact with the application, the odds of being able to turn a bug into a usable attack are greatly increased, and the odds of being able to reach vulnerable code locations are greatly increased. Perhabs the more widely used term is "attack surface", but that term fails to convey the importance of "wiggle room" for exploit reliability. Any interaction with the program is useful.
- Estimated quality of code: Finding useful bugs is actually quite time consuming. With some experience, a few glances at the code will give an experienced attacker some sort of "gut feeling" about the overall quality of the code.
MS has put more money into SDL than most other software vendors. This holds true both in absolute and in relative terms. MS is in a very strong position economically, so they can afford things other vendors (who, contrastingly, are exposed to market forces) cannot.
The code quality has improved markedly, decreasing the score on the 4th dimension. Likewise, there has been some reduction in attack surface, decreasing the score on the 3rd dimension. This is enough to convince attackers that their time is better spent on 'weaker' targets. The old chestnut about "you don't have to outrun the bear, you just have to outrun your co-hikers" holds true in security more than anywhere else.
In the end, it is much more attractive to attack Flash (maximum score on all dimensions) or any other browser plugins that are widely used.
I stand by my quote that "Vista is arguably the most secure closed-source OS available on the market".
This doesn't mean it's flawless. It just means it's more secure than previous versions of Windows, and more secure than OS X.
There was a second part to my blog post, where I mentioned that attackers are waiting for MS to become complacent again. I have read that many people inside Microsoft cannot imagine becoming complacent on security again. While I think this is true on the engineering level, it is imaginable that security might be scaled down by management.
The sluggish adoption of Vista by end-users is a clear sign that security does not necessarily sell. People buy features, and they cannot judge the relative security of the system. It is thus imaginable that people concerned with the bottom line decide to emphasize features over security again -- in the end, MS is a business, and the business benefits of investing in making code more secure have yet to materialize.
We'll see how this all plays out :-)
Anyhow, the next BlueHat is coming up. I won't attend this time, but I am certain that it will be an interesting event.