Security, Consumer Reports, and Failure

Last week there was a story about Consumer Reports doing security testing of products.

As one can imagine there were a fair number of “they’ll get it wrong” sort of comments. They will get it wrong, at first, but that’s not a reason to pick on these guys. They’re quite brave to take this task on, it’s nearly impossible if you think about the state of security (especially consumer security). But this is how things start. There is no industry that has gone from broken to perfect in one step. It’s a long hard road when you have to deal with systemic problems in an industry. Consumer product security problems may be larger and more complex than any other industry has ever had to solve thanks to things such as globalization and how inexpensive tiny computers have become.


If you think about the auto industry, you’re talking about something that costs thousands of dollars. Safety is easy to justify as it’s going to be less than the overall cost of the vehicle. Now if we think about tiny computing devices, you could be talking about chips that cost less than one dollar. If the cost of security and safety will be more than the initial cost of the computing hardware it can be impossible to justify that cost. If adding security doubles the cost of something, the manufacturers will try very hard to find ways around having to include such features. There are always bizarre technicalities that can help avoid regulation, groups like Consumer Reports help with accountability.


Here is where Consumer Reports and other testing labs will be incredibly important to this story. Even if there is regulation a manufacturer chooses to ignore, a group like Consumer Reports can still review the product. Consumer Reports will get things very wrong at first, sometimes it will be hilariously wrong. But that’s OK, it’s how everything starts. If you look back at any sort of safety and security in the consumer space, it took a long time, sometimes decades, to get it right. Cybersecurity will be no different, it’s going to take a long time to even understand the problem.

Our default reaction to mistakes is often one of ridicule, this is one of those times we have to be mindful of how dangerous this attitude is. If we see a group trying to do the right thing but getting it wrong, we need to offer advice, not mockery. If we don’t engage in a useful and serious way nobody will take us seriously. There are a lot of smart security folks out there, we can help make the world a better place this time. Sometimes things can look hopeless and horrible, but things will get better. It’ll take time, it won’t be easy, but things will get better thanks to efforts such as this one.

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