AusCERT 2013: Four dissenters to spur next year's security debates

Dissent is always more enjoyable than conformity. Not only does it make a better story for a journalist, it occasionally forces people to think.

So while the world has a continuing theme of doom and apocalypse surrounding IT security, some notes rang out, not because they involved reciting the size or scale of botnet traffic in the latest attack, but instead challenged some of our most basic assumptions.

Marcus Fabro of Lofty Perch was one dissenting voice. While quite happy to agree that SCADA vulnerabilities are too frequent, and often severe in the context of the isolated device, he is far less ready to predict mass blackouts in America next year as a result.

And that's in spite of the horrifying discoveries Lofty Perch has made – that it's still possible to deploy 1995-era exploits against in-service SCADA kit, that buffer overflow and ActiveX control vulnerabilities are the dominant gaps in the systems and so on. However, individual vulnerabilities don't add up into imminent fragility on a system level, which means that the industrial control world probably has a little time to get its act together.

Dimitri Apterovitch of CrowdStrike is more of a security activist: his point of view is dissenting from the mainstream chiefly because he would like to see infosec empowered to fight back against activists to a greater degree.

For that idea to take hold, however, it would also need some kind of consensus about the rules of engagement for cyberwar. Enter CSO's third voice of dissent, Marcus Ranum of Tenable Security. His position is that “cyberwar” is a meaningless jargon which rather than informing the debate, is designed to help concentrate power – and dollars – in the leftover Twentieth Century military structures, and re-cast computer security as a military concern.

His message is that it's nonsense for this industry to be addicted to borrowing quotes from Sun Tzu's Art of War, if none of us are willing to read it, understand it, and admit that in “Cyberwar”, we're already on the losing side. Every castle ever built eventually fell; and big armies are forever bogged down by insurgencies.

The “cyberwar” can't be won, because even the word, he said, reflects the “short-sighted thinking of the late 20th century”.

Last of all, and with very little in her manner to suggest a radical departure from the mainstream, there's Dr Lizzie Coles-Kemp.

Working with communities for which computers and the Internet would still be regarded as expensive luxuries, in which it's almost certain that users have to share machines, accounts and probably passwords, the IT industry's attitude both to account privacy and password-sharing seems both quaint and out-of-place.

Dr Coles-Kemp's address was a reminder that if you don't win over the “wetware”, you won't ever have security. It's not only a question of whether technology fails us: it's how interpersonal relationships, work relationships, and trusted friendships can create complex mappings that we don't model when thinking about security software – or that we can't model.

And while I'm certain that other delegates would nominate their own most-interesting list, I hope that at least some of the thoughts I've outlined here will keep the debate going well into AusCERT 2014.

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