2008-04-06

Economics and the Security Cold War

The current state of the computer security threat landscape, it has been said, is a new cold war. I feel, regardless of how deeply this anecdote holds, that lessons can be learned from it. Let's accept the cold war metaphor as an axiom for the moment.

It is widely agreed that the cold war between the United States and Soviet Union was decided by economics - quite simply, the US outspent the USSR. In an effort to keep up with American defense spending, the Soviets sent their economy into collapse. If we follow this lesson through our anecdote, the problem of security boils down to one of economics, not complete security. Slowly, the truth that no computer system or network can be perfectly secured is being accepted by decision makers. Thus, the goal of computer security becomes to make the cost of compromise higher than some other alternative. In a necessary divergence from a comparison to the 20th century cold war, and making the economics of computer security more difficult, we must understand that there is no terminal state. There is no Soviet Union to collapse, relaxing the obligation of net defenders. There will always be some entity with a computer and an ambiguous moral compass.

Economic efficiency therefore becomes the ultimate goal of security - to not just defend, but defend in the cheapest possible way, so the most robust defenses can be erected and the prospect of compromising a network becomes too expensive to warrant investment as the adversary considers options in achieving their various ends. Ideally, this makes the cost of achieving a goal more cost effective via moral and legal means. Most likely, though, it just moves the problem to another entity or altogether different domain.

Understanding the threat landscape of the environment to be defended, in this paradigm, is paramount. Adversaries that are looking to save money by sharing games, videos, or music (classically referred to as warez) can quickly and cheaply be driven out of profitability when you consider the cost of a DVD is around $25. Quite a bit more effort (money) is necessary to outspend the likes of scammers and organized crime syndicates. Once espionage - nation-states attempting to achieve multibillion-dollar generational jumps in their military technology - comes into the picture, it's easy to see that the costs become staggering.

Why, then, are we not condoning threat-appropriate strategies for different industries? The defense industrial base and DoD are starting to diverge as an entity from the rest of the world, but this is an exception. Our collective mindset needs to change, and we need to begin by educating other security professionals. Computer security defense intelligence is needed in every industry, to map the computer security needs of an organization to the economics of its adversaries. This is how security is achieved.

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