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Posts with keyword: economics

One blessing of the Cybersecurity Executive Order

On May 12th, the Biden administration issued an Executive Order that was written to improve the overall security posture of software products that the government buys from the private sector. Recent events, such as the SolarWinds hack, contributed to the realization that such a move is necessary.

This Executive Order is a big deal. Of course, nothing will change overnight, but given the size and complexity of the software industry, as well as the overall culture behind software security (the culture of: “If the customer doesn’t see it — don’t spend money on it”), an Executive Order can probably yield the closest thing to immediate improvement that we could reasonably wish for. The US Government is a very large customer, and all major vendors will elect to comply with its requirements rather than cross it all off their addressable markets.

A lot has been written on how important it is for the government to use its buying power (if not its regulatory power) to drive vendors into shipping more secure products. Product security suffers from what could best be described as a market failure condition, which would call for such regulatory intervention.

To not overly repeat the mainstream media, I would like to focus on one unique aspect of the current Executive Order, and on how it can ignite a new trend that will change product and network security for the better. I’ll discuss true machine-readable security documentation.

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On the value of NFT

An NFT (Non-Fungible Token) is a data structure that points at a particular data object in a unique way. See it as a way of naming digital objects, such as photos, texts, audio or video, in a way that allows referring to them with no ambiguity.

The ability to refer to data objects allows to “mention” them in transactions. This seemingly trivial ability, when combined with the ability to create immutable records of transactions (as provided by Blockchains), allows us to create immutable records that refer to data objects.

Technically, NFTs do not require blockchains. You could take a photo of a cat, create an NFT for this photo, which is essentially a unique pointer to (or: a descriptor of) it, and then go on to write a real contract on paper that says “this photo of a cat, bearing this unique ID, is hereby assigned to John Smith”, whatever this assignment means.

Blockchains and smart contract technologies allow for such digital agreements to be stored in a public immutable record that does not allow anyone to change it once it was written. The combination of NFTs and blockchain-based smart contracts thus allows us to securely record agreements that declare ownership of digital goods. If you have any file (photo, text, video, etc.), you can create an attestation that tells the entire world that you assign this file to be owned by whoever. What does this “ownership” mean? – Good question; but whatever it means, billions of dollars have already been paid towards such ownerships. Is this real? The money surely is, but is also the value?

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The role of security focused alternatives

Our digital lives are more or less governed by very few providers of products and services. Our desktop computing is almost invariably based on Microsoft Windows, our document collaboration is most likely based on either Google Docs or on O365, our instant messaging is either Whatsapp or Slack, our video collaboration is either Teams or Zoom, etc. Given the prevalence of digital life and work, you would expect more options to exist. However, all those large pies seem to each be divided into just a few thick slices each. Those lucky providers that won their dominance did so by catering to the needs of the masses while serving their own agendas, or more accurately: by serving their own agendas while giving enough to make their products preferable by the masses.

Customers appreciate ease of deployment and ease of use, and all of the dominant products excel in that. However, customers never said anything too explicit about security and customers never demanded data sovereignty. Those properties are also very non-compelling for some providers, either because they increase cost, because they prevent lock-in, or because they hinder business models that rely on using customer data. The vast majority of customers never really required, and hence never really got, anything more than ease of use and ease of deployment, along a few key functional features. For most customers, this is enough, but customers who also require security, privacy, and/or data sovereignty, face a challenge when working out alternatives.

But alternatives do exist, for desktop computing, for collaboration and for messaging and video communication. Those alternatives play an important role in our digital ecosystem, even if most people never care to use them.

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Protecting network neutrality: both important and hard

The term “network neutrality” is mentioned very often lately; also in the context of FCC ruling, such as here, and here. Since the definition of net neutrality is not always clear, this topic is not subject to as much public debate as it probably should. Here is my take of what network neutrality is, and why it is difficult to regulate and enforce. I will start with my proposed technical and service-related definition of “network neutrality", and will follow with a brief explanation of why this is both difficult and important.

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The Inevitable Collapse of the Certificate Model

Many had high expectations from the SSL/TLS certificate model. At least on paper it sounded promising and worthwhile. Keys are used to protect traffic; for this to be effective, keys shall be bound to business entities; for the binding to be trustworthy by the public, binding will be signed by Certification Authorities (CAs), which the public will recognize as authoritative. Once the trusted CA signs the binding between a business entity (represented by a domain name) and a key — every user can tell he is communicating securely with the correct entity.

In practice, it got all messed up. It is difficult to form authorization hierarchies on the global Internet, this is one thing. However, the model failed also due to the economics behind it.

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