Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Addressing Innumeracy in Reporting

Anyone involved in cybersecurity reporting needs a strong sense of numeracy, or mathematical literacy. I see two sorts of examples of innumeracy repeatedly in the media.

The first involves the time value of money. Recently CNN claimed Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was the "richest person in history" and Recode said Bezos was "now worth more than Bill Gates ever was." Thankfully both Richard Steinnon and Noah Kirsch recognized the foolishness of these reports, correctly noting that Bezos would only rank number 17 on a list where wealth was adjusted for inflation.

This failure to recognize the time value of money is pervasive. Just today I heard the host of a podcast claim that the 1998 Jackie Chan movie Rush Hour was "the top grossing martial arts film of all time." According to Box Office Mojo, Rush Hour earned $244,386,864 worldwide. Adjusting for inflation, in 2017 dollars that's $367,509,865.67 -- impressive!

For comparison, I researched the box office returns for Bruce Lee's Enter the Dragon. Box Office Mojo lacked data, but I found a 2017 article stating his 1973 movie earned "$25 million in the U.S. and $90 million worldwide, excluding Hong Kong." If I adjust the worldwide figure of $90 million for inflation, in 2017 dollars that's $496,864,864.86 -- making Enter the Dragon easily more successful than Rush Hour.

If you're wondering about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, that 2000 movie earned $213,525,736 worldwide. That movie earned less than Rush Hour, and arrived two years later, so it's not worth doing the inflation math.

The take-away is that any time you are comparing dollars from different time periods, you must adjust for inflation to have your comparisons have any meaning whatsoever.

Chart by @CanadianFlags
The second sort of innumeracy I'd like to highlight today also involves money, but in a slightly different way. This involves changes in values over time.

For example, a company may grow revenue from 2015 to 2016, with 2015 revenue being $100,000 and 2016 being $200,000. That's a 100% gain.

If the company grows another $100,000 from 2016 to 2017, from $200,000 to $300,000, the growth rate has declined to 50%. To have maintained a 100% growth rate, the company needed to make $400,000 in 2016.

That same $100,000 dollar increase isn't so great when compared to the new base value.

We see the same dynamic at play when tracking the growth of individual stocks or market indices over time.

CNN wrote a story about the 1,000 point rise in the Dow Jones Industrial Average over a period of 7 days, from 25,000 to 26,000. One person Tweeted the chart at the above right, asking "is that healthy?" My answer -- you need a proper chart!

My second reaction was "that's a jump, but it's only (1-(25000/26000)) = 3.8%. Yes, 3.8% in 7 days is a lot, but that doesn't even rate in the top 20 one-day percentage gains or losses over the life of the index.

If the DJIA gained 1,000 points in 7 days 5 years ago, when the market was at 13,649, a rise to 14,649 would be a 6.8% gain. 20 years ago the market was roughly 3,310, so a 1,000 point rise to 4,310 would be a massive 23.2% gain.

A better way to depict the growth in the DJIA would be to use a logarithmic chart. The charts below show a linear version on the top and a logarithmic version below it.

Using barcharts.com, I drew the last 30 years of the DJIA at the top using a linear Y axis, meaning there is equal distance between 2,000 and 4,000, 4,000 and 6,000, and so on. The blue line shows the slope of the growth.

I then drew the same period using a logarithmic Y axis, meaning the percentage gains from one line to another are equal. For example, a 100% increase from 1,000 to 2,000 occupies the same distance as the 100% increase from 5,000 to 10,000. The green line shows the slope of the growth.

I put the blue and green lines on both charts to permit comparison of the slopes. As you can see, the growth, when properly indicated using a log chart and the green line, is less than the exaggerations introduced by the linear chart blue line.

There is indeed an upturn recently in the log chart, but the growth is probably on trend over time.

While we're talking about the market, let's take one minute to smack down the old trope that "what comes up, must come down." There is no "law of gravity" in investing, at least for the US market, as a whole.

The best example I have seen of the reality of the situation is this 2017 article titled The Dow’s tumultuous 120-year history, in one chart. Here is the chart:

Chart by Chris Kacher, managing director of MoKa Investors

What an amazing story. The title of the article should not be gloomy. It should be triumphant. Despite two World Wars, a Cold War, wars in Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East, and elsewhere, assassinations of world leaders, market depressions and recessions, and so on, the trend line is up, and up in a big way. While the DJIA doesn't represent the entire US market, it captures enough of it to be representative. This is why I do not bet against the US market over the long term. (And yes I recognize that the market and the economy are different.)

Individual companies may disappear, and the DJIA has indeed been changed many times over the years. However, those changes were made so that the index roughly reflected the makeup of the economy. Is it perfect? No. Does it capture the overall directional trend line since 1896? Yes.

Please keep in mind these two sorts of innumeracy -- the time value of money, and the importance of percentage changes over time -- when dealing with numbers and time.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Remembering When APT Became Public

Last week I Tweeted the following on the 8th anniversary of Google's blog post about its compromise by Chinese threat actors:

This intrusion made the term APT mainstream. I was the first to associate it with Aurora, in this post 


My first APT post was a careful reference in 2007, when we all feared being accused of "leaking classified" re China: 


I should have added the term "publicly" to my original Tweet. There were consultants with years of APT experience involved in the Google incident response, and they recognized the work of APT17 at that company and others. Those consultants honored their NDAs and have stayed quiet.

I wrote my original Tweet as a reminder that "APT" was not a popular, recognized term until the Google announcement on 12 January 2010. In my Google v China blog post I wrote:

Welcome to the party, Google. You can use the term "advanced persistent threat" (APT) if you want to give this adversary its proper name.

I also Tweeted a similar statement on the same day:

This is horrifying: http://bit.ly/7x7vVW Google admits intellectual property theft from China; it's called Advanced Persistent Threat, GOOG

I made the explicit link of China and APT because no one had done that publicly.

This slide from a 2011 briefing I did in Hawaii captures a few historical points:

The Google incident was a watershed, for reasons I blogged on 16 January 2010. I remember the SANS DFIR 2008 event as effectively "APTCon," but beyond Mandiant, Northrup Grumman, and NetWitness, no one was really talking publicly about the APT until after Google.

As I noted in the July 2009 blog post, You Down With APT? (ugh):

Aside from Northrup Grumman, Mandiant, and a few vendors (like NetWitness, one of the full capture vendors out there) mentioning APT, there's not much else available. A Google search for "advanced persistent threat" -netwitness -mandiant -Northrop yields 34 results (prior to this blog post). (emphasis added)

Today that search yields 244,000 results.

I would argue we're "past APT." APT was the buzzword for RSA and other vendor-centric events from, say, 2011-2015, with 2013 being the peak following Mandiant's APT1 report.

The threat hasn't disappeared, but it has changed. I wrote my Tweet to mark a milestone and to note that I played a small part in it.

All my APT posts here are reachable by this APT tag. Also see my 2010 article for Information Security Magazine titled What APT Is, and What It Isn't.

Monday, January 08, 2018

Happy 15th Birthday TaoSecurity Blog

Today, 8 January 2018, is the 15th birthday of TaoSecurity Blog! This is also my 3,020th blog post.

I wrote my first post on 8 January 2003 while working as an incident response consultant for Foundstone.

I don't believe I've released statistics for the blog before, so here are a few. Blogger started providing statistics in May 2010, so these apply to roughly the past 8 years only!

As of today, since May 2010 the blog has nearly 7.7 million all time page views.

Here are the most popular posts as of today:

Twitter continues to play a role in the way I communicate. When I last reported on a blog birthday two years ago, I said that I had nearly 36,000 Twitter followers for @taosecurity, with roughly 16,000 Tweets. Today I have nearly 49,000 followers with less than 18,000 Tweets. As with most people on social media, blogging has taken a back seat to more instant forms of communication.

These days I am active on Instagram as @taosecurity as well. That account is a departure from my social media practice. On Twitter I have separate accounts for cybersecurity and intelligence (@taosecurity), martial arts (@rejoiningthetao), and other purposes. My Instagram @taosecurity account is a unified account, meaning I talk about whatever I feel like. 

During the last two years I also started another blog to which I regularly contribute -- Rejoining the Tao. I write about my martial arts journey there, usually once a week.

Once in a while I post to LinkedIn, but it's usually news of a blog post like this, or other LinkedIn content of interest.

What's ahead? You may remember I was working on a PhD and I had left FireEye. I decided to abandon my PhD in the fall of 2016. I realized I was not an academic, although I had written four books.

I have also changed all the goals I named in my post-FireEye announcement.

For the last year I have been doing limited security consulting, but that has been increasing in recent months. I continue to be involved in martial arts, but I no longer plan to be a Krav Maga instructor nor to open my own school.

For several months I've been working with a co-author and subject matter expert on a new book with martial arts applicability. I've been responsible for editing and publishing. I'll say more about that at Rejoining the Tao when the time is right.

Thank you to everyone who has been part of this blog's journey since 2003!

Friday, January 05, 2018

Spectre and Meltdown from a CNO Perspective

Longtime readers know that I have no problem with foreign countries replacing American vendors with local alternatives. For example, see Five Reasons I Want China Running Its Own Software. This is not a universal principle, but as an American I am fine with it. Putting my computer network operations (CNO) hat on, I want to share a few thoughts about the intersection of the anti-American vendor mindset with the recent Spectre and Meltdown attacks.

There are probably non-Americans, who, for a variety of reasons, feel that it would be "safer" for them to run their cloud computing workloads on non-American infrastructure. Perhaps they feel that it puts their data beyond the reach of the American Department of Justice. (I personally feel that it's an over-reach by DoJ to try to access data beyond American borders, eg Microsoft Corp. v. United States.)

The American intelligence community and computer network operators, however, might prefer to have that data outside American borders. These agencies are still bound by American laws, but those laws generally permit exploitation overseas.

Now put this situation in the context of Spectre and Meltdown. Begin with the attack scenario mentioned by Nicole Perlroth, where an attacker rents a few minutes of time on various cloud systems, then leverages Spectre and/or Meltdown to try to gather sensitive data from other virtual machines on the same physical hardware.

No lawyer or judge would allow this sort of attack scenario if it were performed in American systems. It would be very difficult, I think, to minimize data in this kind of "fishing expedition." Most of the data returned would belong to US persons and would be subject to protection. Sure, there are conspiracy theorists out there who will never trust that the US government follows its own laws. These people are sure that the USG already knew about Spectre and Meltdown and ravaged every American cloud system already, after doing the same with the "Intel Management Engine backdoors."

In reality, US law will prevent computer network operators from running these sorts of missions on US cloud infrastructure. Overseas, it's a different story. Non US-persons do not enjoy the same sorts of privacy protections as US persons. Therefore, the more "domestic" (non-American) the foreign target, the better. For example, if the IC identified a purely Russian cloud provider, it would not be difficult for the USG to authorize a Spectre-Meltdown collection operation against that target.

I have no idea if this is happening, but this was one of my first thoughts when I first heard about this new attack vector.

Bonus: it's popular to criticize academics who research cybersecurity. They don't seem to find much that is interesting or relevant. However, academics played a big role in discovering Spectre and Meltdown. Wow!