Wednesday, November 06, 2019

Seven Security Strategies, Summarized

This is the sort of story that starts as a comment on Twitter, then becomes a blog post when I realize I can't fit all the ideas into one or two Tweets. (You know how much I hate Tweet threads, and how I encourage everyone to capture deep thoughts in blog posts!)

In the interest of capturing the thought, and not in the interest of thinking too deeply or comprehensively (at least right now), I offer seven security strategies, summarized.

When I mention the risk equation, I'm talking about the idea that one can conceptually image the risk of some negative event using this "formula": Risk (of something) is the product of some measurements of Vulnerability X Threat X Asset Value, or R = V x T x A.

  1. Denial and/or ignorance. This strategy assumes the risk due to loss is low, because those managing the risk assume that one or more of the elements of the risk equation are zero or almost zero, or they are apathetic to the cost.
  2. Loss acceptance. This strategy may assume the risk due to loss is low, or more likely those managing the risk assume that the cost of risk realization is low. In other words, incidents will occur, but the cost of the incident is acceptable to the organization.
  3. Loss transferal. This strategy may also assume the risk due to loss is low, but in contrast with risk acceptance, the organization believes it can buy an insurance policy which will cover the cost of an incident, and the cost of the policy is cheaper than alternative strategies.
  4. Vulnerability elimination. This strategy focuses on driving the vulnerability element of the risk equation to zero or almost zero, through secure coding, proper configuration, patching, and similar methods.
  5. Threat elimination. This strategy focuses on driving the threat element of the risk equation to zero or almost zero, through deterrence, dissuasion, co-option, bribery, conversion, incarceration, incapacitation, or other methods that change the intent and/or capabilities of threat actors. 
  6. Asset value elimination. This strategy focuses on driving the threat element of the risk equation to zero or almost zero, through minimizing data or resources that might be valued by adversaries.
  7. Interdiction. This is a hybrid strategy which welcomes contributions from vulnerability elimination, primarily, but is open to assistance from loss transferal, threat elimination, and asset value elimination. Interdiction assumes that prevention eventually fails, but that security teams can detect and respond to incidents post-compromise and pre-breach. In other words, some classes of intruders will indeed compromise an organization, but it is possible to detect and respond to the attack before the adversary completes his mission.
As you might expect, I am most closely associated with the interdiction strategy. 

I believe the denial and/or ignorance and loss acceptance strategies are irresponsible.

I believe the loss transferal strategy continues to gain momentum with the growth of cybersecurity breach insurance policies. 

I believe the vulnerability elimination strategy is important but ultimately, on its own, ineffective and historically shown to be impossible. When used in concert with other strategies, it is absolutely helpful.

I believe the threat elimination strategy is generally beyond the scope of private organizations. As the state retains the monopoly on the use of force, usually only law enforcement, military, and sometimes intelligence agencies can truly eliminate or mitigate threats. (Threats are not vulnerabilities.)

I believe asset value elimination is powerful but has not gained the ground I would like to see. This is my "If you can’t protect it, don’t collect it" message. The limitation here is obviously one's raw computing elements. If one were to magically strip down every computing asset into basic operating systems on hardware or cloud infrastructure, the fact that those assets exist and are networked means that any adversary can abuse them for mining cryptocurrencies, or as infrastructure for intrusions, or for any other uses of raw computing power.

Please notice that none of the strategies listed tools, techniques, tactics, or operations. Those are important but below the level of strategy in the conflict hierarchy. I may have more to say on this in the future. 

Friday, September 13, 2019

Five Thoughts on the Internet Freedom League

In the September/October issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, Richard Clarke and Rob Knake published an article titled "The Internet Freedom League: How to Push Back Against the Authoritarian Assault on the Web," based on their recent book The Fifth Domain. The article proposes the following:

The United States and its allies and partners should stop worrying about the risk of authoritarians splitting the Internet. 

Instead, they should split it themselves, by creating a digital bloc within which data, services, and products can flow freely, excluding countries that do not respect freedom of expression or privacy rights, engage in disruptive activity, or provide safe havens to cybercriminals...

The league would not raise a digital Iron Curtain; at least initially, most Internet traffic would still flow between members and nonmembers, and the league would primarily block companies and organizations that aid and abet cybercrime, rather than entire countries. 

Governments that fundamentally accept the idea of an open, tolerant, and democratic Internet but that struggle to live up to such a vision would have an incentive to improve their enforcement efforts in order join the league and secure connectivity for their companies and citizens. 

Of course, authoritarian regimes in China, Russia, and elsewhere will probably continue to reject that vision. 

Instead of begging and pleading with such governments to play nice, from now on, the United States and its allies should lay down the law: follow the rules, or get cut off.

My initial reaction to this line of thought was not encouraging. Rather than continue exchanging Twitter messages, Rob and I had a very pleasant phone conversation to help each other understand our points of view. Rob asked me to document my thoughts in a blog post, so this is the result.

Rob explained that the main goal of the IFL is to create leverage to influence those who do not implement an open, tolerant, and democratic Internet (summarized below as OTDI). I agree that leverage is certainly lacking, but I wondered if the IFL would accomplish that goal. My reservations included the following.

1. Many countries that currently reject the OTDI might only be too happy to be cut off from the Western Internet. These countries do not want their citizens accessing the OTDI. Currently dissidents and others seeking news beyond their local borders must often use virtual private networks and other means to access the OTDI. If the IFL went live, those dissidents and others would be cut off, thanks to their government's resistance to OTDI principles.

2. Elites in anti-OTDI countries would still find ways to access the Western Internet, either for personal, business, political, military, or intelligence reasons. The common person would be mostly likely to suffer.

3. Segregating the OTDI would increase the incentives for "network traffic smuggling," whereby anti-OTDI elites would compromise, bribe, or otherwise corrupt Western Internet resources to establish surreptitious methods to access the OTDI. This would increase the intrusion pressure upon organizations with networks in OTDI and anti-OTDI locations.

4. Privacy and Internet freedom groups would likely strongly reject the idea of segregating the Internet in this manner. They are vocal and would apply heavy political pressure, similar to recent net neutrality arguments.

5. It might not be technically possible to segregate the Internet as desired by the IFL. Global business does not neatly differentiate between Western and anti-OTDI networks. Similar to the expected resistance from privacy and freedom groups, I expect global commercial lobbies to strongly reject the IFL on two grounds. First, global businesses cannot disentangle themselves from anti-OTDI locations, and second, Western businesses do not want to lose access to markets in anti-OTDI countries.

Rob and I had a wide-ranging discussion, but these five points in written form provide a platform for further analysis.

What do you think about the IFL? Let Rob and I know on Twitter, via @robknake and @taosecurity.

Monday, July 01, 2019

Happy Birthday

Nineteen years ago this week I registered the domain

Creation Date: 2000-07-04T02:20:16Z

This was 2 1/2 years before I started blogging, so I don't have much information from that era. I did create the first Web site shortly thereafter.

I first started hosting it on space provided by my then-ISP, Road Runner of San Antonio, TX. According to, it looked like this in February 2002.

That is some fine-looking vintage hand-crafted HTML. Because I lived in Texas I apparently reached for the desert theme with the light tan background. Unfortunately I didn't have the "under construction" gif working for me.

As I got deeper into the security scene, I decided to simplify and adopt a dark look. By this time I had left Texas and was in the DC area, working for Foundstone. According to, the site look like this in April 2003.

Notice I've replaced the oh-so-cool picture of me doing American Kenpo in the upper-left-hand corner with the classic Bruce Lee photo from the cover of The Tao of Jeet Kune Do. This version marks the first appearance of my classic TaoSecurity logo.

A little more than two years later, I decided to pursue TaoSecurity as an independent consultant. To launch my services, I painstakingly created more hand-written HTML and graphics to deliver this beauty. According to, the site looked like this in May 2005.

I mean, can you even believe how gorgeous that site is? Look at the subdued gray TaoSecurity logo, the red-highlighted menu boxes, etc. I should have kept that site forever.

We know that's not what happened, because that wonder of a Web site only lasted about a year. Still to this day not really understanding how to use CSS, I used a free online template by Andreas Viklund to create a new site. According to, the site appeared in this form in July 2006.

After four versions in four years, my primary Web site stayed that way... for thirteen years. Oh, I modified the content, SSH'ing into the server hosted by my friend Phil Hagen, manually editing the HTML using vi (and careful not to touch the CSS).

Then, I attended AWS re:inforce the last week in June, 2019. I decided that although I had tinkered with Amazon Web Services as early as 2010, and was keeping an eye on it as early as 2008, I had never hosted any meaningful workloads there. A migration of my primary Web site to AWS seemed like a good way to learn a bit more about AWS and an excuse to replace my teenage Web layout with something that rendered a bit better on a mobile device.

After working with Mobirise, AWS S3, AWS Cloudfront, AWS Certificate Manager, AWS Route 53, my previous domain name servers, and my domain registrar, I'm happy to say I have a new Web site. The front page like this:

The background is an image of Milnet from the late 1990s. I apologize for the giant logo in the upper left. It should be replaced by a resized version later today when the AWS Cloudfront cache expires.

Scolling down provides information on my books, which I figured is what most people who visit the site care about.

For reference, I moved the content (which I haven't been updated) about news, press, and research to individual TaoSecurity Blog posts.

It's possible you will not see the site, if your DNS servers have the old IP addresses cached. That should all expire no later than tomorrow afternoon, I imagine.

Let's see if the new site lasts another thirteen years?

Reference: TaoSecurity Press

I started appearing in media reports in 2000. I used to provide this information on my Web site, but since I don't keep that page up-to-date anymore, I decided to publish it here.