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Thursday, August 14, 2014

Security As Class

This is a smart and interesting blog post:
I prefer to think of security as a class of interface guarantee. In particular, security guarantees are a kind of correctness guarantee. At every interface of every kind ­ user interface, programming language syntax and semantics, in-process APIs, kernel APIs, RPC and network protocols, ceremonies ­-- explicit and implicit design guarantees (promises, contracts) are in place, and determine the degree of “security” (however defined) the system can possibly achieve.
Design guarantees might or might not actually hold in the implementation ­-- software tends to have bugs, after all. Callers and callees can sometimes (but not always) defend themselves against untrustworthy callees and callers (respectively) in various ways that depend on the circumstances and on the nature of caller and callee. In this sense an interface is an attack surface --­ but properly constructed, it can also be a defense surface.
But also it’s an attempt to re-frame security engineering in a way that allows us to imagine more and better solutions to security problems. For example, when you frame your interface as an attack surface, you find yourself ever-so-slightly in a panic mode, and focus on how to make the surface as small as possible. Inevitably, this tends to lead to cat-and-mouseism and poor usability, seeming to reinforce the false dichotomy. If the panic is acute, it can even lead to nonsensical and undefendable interfaces, and a proliferation of false boundaries (as we saw with Windows UAC).
If instead we frame an interface as a defense surface, we are in a mindset that allows us to treat the interface as a shield: built for defense, testable, tested, covering the body; but also light-weight enough to carry and use effectively. It might seem like a semantic game; but in my experience, thinking of a boundary as a place to build a point of strength rather than thinking of it as something that must inevitably fall to attack leads to solutions that in fact withstand attack better while also functioning better for friendly callers.

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