Regulation can fix security, except you can’t regulate security

Every time I start a discussion about how we can solve some of our security problems it seems like the topics of professional organizations and regulation are where things end up. I think regulations and professional organizations can fix a lot of problems in an industry, I’m not sure they work for security. First let’s talk about why regulation usually works, then, why it won’t work for security.

What is regulation?
You may not know it, but you deal with regulated industries every day. The food we eat, the cars we drive, the buildings we use, the roads, our water, products we buy, phones, internet, banks; there are literally too many to list. The reasons for the regulation vary greatly, but at the end of the day it’s a nice way to use laws to protect society. It doesn’t always directly protect people, sometimes it protects the government, or maybe even a giant corporation, but the basic idea is because of the regulation society is a better place. There are plenty of corner cases but for now let’s just assume the goal is to make the world a better place.

Refrigerator regulation
One of my favorite stories about regulation involves refrigerator doors. A long time ago the door to a refrigerator would lock from the outside. If someone found themselves on the inside with a closed door, they couldn’t get out. Given a refrigerator is designed to be air tight, one wouldn’t last very long on the inside. The government decided to do something about this and told the companies that made refrigerators there had to be a way to get out if you’re stuck inside. Of course this was seen as impossible and it was expected most companies would have to go out of business or stop making refrigerators. Given a substantial percentage of the population now owns refrigerators, it’s safe to say that didn’t happen. The solution was to use magnets to hold the door shut. Now the thought of using a locking door seems pretty silly especially when the solution was elegant and better in nearly every way.

Can we regulate cybersecurity?
The short answer is no. It can’t be done. I do hate claiming something can’t be done, someday I might be wrong. I imagine there will be some form of regulation eventually, it probably won’t really work though. Let’s use the last financial crisis to explain this. The financial industry has a lot of regulation, but it also has a lot of possibility. What I mean by this is the existing regulation mostly covers bad things that were done in the past, it’s nearly impossible to really regulate the future due to the nature of regulation. So here’s the thing. How many people went to jail from the last financial crisis? Not many. I’d bet in a lot of cases while some people were certainly horrible humans, they weren’t breaking any laws. This will be the story of security regulation. We can create rules to dictate what happened in the past, but technology, bad guys, and people move very quickly in this space. If you regulated the industry to prevent a famous breach from a few years ago (there are many to choose from), by now the whole technology landscape has changed so much many of those rules wouldn’t even apply today. This gets even crazier when you think about the brand new technology being invented every day.

Modern computer systems are Turing complete
A refrigerator has one door. One door that the industry didn’t think they could fix. A modern IT system can do an infinite number of operations. You can’t regulate a machine that can literally do anything. This would be like saying the front fridge door can’t lock when you have a fridge with infinite area on the inside. If you can’t find the door, and there are millions of other doors, some which don’t open, it’s not a useful regulation.

This is our challenge. We have machines that can literally do anything, and we have to make them secure. If there are infinite operations, there are by definitions infinite security problems. I know that’s a bit over dramatic, but the numbers are big enough they’re basically infinity.

The things that generally come up revolve around having security professionals, or training staff, or getting tools to lock things down, or better defaults. None of this things will hurt, but none really work either. even if you have the best staff in the world, you have to work with vendors who don’t. Even if you have the best policies and tools, your developers and sysadmins will make silly mistakes. Even with the best possible defaults, one little error can undo everything.

What can we do?
I’m not suggesting we should curl up in the corner and weep (I’m also not saying not to). Weeping can be less dangerous than letting the new guy configure the server, it’s not very helpful long term. I’m not suggesting that tools and training and staff are wastes of time and money, they have value to a certain point. It’s sort of like taking a CPR course. You can’t do brain surgery, but you can possibly save a life in an emergency. The real fix is going to be from technology and process that don’t exist yet. Cybersecurity is a new concept that we can’t use old models to understand. We need new models, tools, and ideas. They don’t exist yet, but they will someday. Go invent them, I’m impatient and don’t want to wait.

If you have any ideas, let me know: @joshbressers

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