Can be Done to Reduce the Threats Posed by Computer Viruses and Worms
to the Workings of Government?"
Computer Science Laboratory
Subcommittee on Government Efficiency,
and Intergovernmental Relations
This is the fourth time I have provided testimony
for a U.S. House of Representatives committee relating to computer-communication
security, the previous three having been in Washington D.C. [1,2,3] in
1997, 1999, and 2000. The situation has not been noticeably improving;
indeed, we seem to be falling further behind.
Although there have been advances in the research
community on information security, trustworthiness, and dependability,
the overall situation in practice appears to continually be getting worse,
relative to the increasing threats and risks -- for a variety of reasons.
The information infrastructure is still fundamentally riddled with security
vulnerabilities, affecting end-user systems, routers, servers, and communications;
new software is typically flawed, and many old flaws still persist; worse
yet, patches for residual flaws often introduce new vulnerabilities. There
is much greater dependence on the Internet, for Governmental use as well
as private and corporate use. Many more systems are being attached to
the Internet all over the world, with ever increasing numbers of users
-- some of whom have decidedly ulterior motives. Because so many systems
are so easily interconnectable, the opportunities for exploiting vulnerabilities
and the ubiquity of the sources of threats are also increased. Furthermore,
even supposedly stand-alone systems are often vulnerable. Consequently,
the risks are increasing faster than the amelioration of those risks.
There are quite a few realistic but sometimes dirty
truths that remain largely unspoken and under-appreciated.
- Secure information systems and networks are
extremely difficult to design, develop, operate, and maintain. Although
perfect security is inherently impossible (especially when insider threats
are considered), what we have today is a far cry from what is straightforwardly
possible. System developers, and particularly mass-market software developers,
are not adequately addressing the underlying security needs of computer-communication
- Computer-communication systems and their development
processes are becoming increasingly complex, which runs counter to security.
Ideally, it should be possible to configure less complex systems specifically
tailored to their given requirements, perhaps as stark subsets of generic
secure systems, rather than continually adding more functionality without
- Our critical national infrastructures -- including
our information infrastructures -- are not only vulnerable, but highly
at risk, as was noted by the President's Commission on Critical Infrastructure
Protection (PCCIP)  in the previous Administration. The risks pointed
out then are essentially all still present today, and have not substantially
diminished. In some senses, the risks may be greater because of increased
opportunities for exploitation of the vulnerabilities.
- The Internet is an enormous distributed system.
It is international in nature. U.S. laws intended to outlaw bad behavior
here seem to have relatively little effect in thwarting malicious activities
from off-shore. Because of generally weak information security, threats
arising from anywhere in the world are often very difficult to trace
accurately. Improving the dependability and security of our computer
and communication systems would be a good place to start, with sensible
uses of cryptography, less easily bypassed user authentication, and
meaningful accountability (for example). Laws and law enforcement do
have roles, but cannot be the primary means of discouraging misuse.
Internet-connected systems are especially vulnerable
to viruses, worms, Trojan horses, e-mail letter bombs, calendar-time
bombs, and other malfeasant attacks, and remain so despite nominal
improvements. The long history of relatively simple-minded mail bombs
(Melissa, ILoveYou, SirCam) and other attacks such as the recent Code
Red variants suggest that much more destructive attacks can easily
be conceived and perpetrated. Denials of service and especially widely
distributed denial-of-service attacks are easy to mount, and can be
quite debilitating. However, much more serious system subversions
are also easy to perpetrate.
Education relating to computer systems and
computer security is woefully inadequate. The technical field has
developed very rapidly, and education is always hard-pressed to keep
up. But the problems are particularly vital with respect to systems
with critical requirements. For example, developers of secure systems,
ultra-reliable systems, life-critical systems, and other systems with
stringent requirements need to be more than merely competent; extensive
backgrounds in dependable software engineering are required. In some
cases, an understanding of mathematics far beyond what the average
college student receives is necessary. System administrators are generally
unprepared for the sophistication required to deal with the flawed
system security and weak configurations; the steady flow of security
patches attempting to fix earlier flaws often remain uninstalled.
Managers often do not have a clue. Legislators need to have a much
better understanding of the social and technical implications. Some
people have advocated certification of developers and programmers;
however, this is a very contentious matter, which if adopted badly
could easily create a sense of false security. Overall, much greater
emphasis on education is needed, for training would-be experts and
illuminating less technical folks as well.
Outsourcing of critical functionality to people
who must be trusted even if they are not trustworthy is a riskful
strategy, although it is being increasingly used in various branches
of government. Dependence on questionable outsiders for software development,
operations, maintenance, and administration presents many additional
risks. DoD outsourcing of critical system administration functionality
and the recent use of foreign nationals for the Year-2000 remediation
of air-traffic control software (apparently unbeknownst to the technical
people at the Federal Aviation Administration) are recent examples
of potential risks.
In general, seemingly simple solutions are
often not effective. They are misleading, and tend to offer a false
sense of security. Several examples are given here:
--The existing Federal Digital Millennium Copyright
Act (DMCA) and the emerging Uniform Computer Information Transactions
Act (UCITA, either passed or under consideration in various states) both
seem to be having a chilling effect by seriously impeding the research
community from helping to improve security, and by allowing system developers
and vendors to hide behind inferior security. Also, genuinely well-intentioned
whistleblowers are increasingly finding themselves threatened with prosecution.
--Past government efforts to prevent or impede
the use of strong cryptography have seriously retarded progress in security.
Cryptography and strong security should have been routinely embedded into
our standard protocols and products, but unfortunately this has not happened.
Security is extremely difficult to retrofit into systems that are fundamentally
flawed. It should not be surprising to anyone that many cryptographically
enhanced systems are so easily broken.
At the moment, there is a mad rush to try to
replace punched-card ballots and their vote-counting systems with all-electronic
voting systems. However, today's fully electronic voting systems (such
as Direct Recording Equipment, DREs) and especially Internet voting
software all have a fundamental lack of meaningful accountability. Because
of the absence of user-verified independent audit trails, there is typically
no assurance whatever that a vote as cast is identical to the vote as
counted. Although some people have hope that this serious deficiency
could be overcome in the future, it may be possible only at the sacrifice
of voter privacy. In addition, Internet voting adds opportunities for
election fraud from anywhere in the world, not just locally within a
given precinct. Proprietary electronic voting and Internet voting systems
are both highly susceptible to insider fraud that can seriously alter
the results of elections; in addition, Internet voting is especially
susceptible to bogus polling places and fraudulent voting software,
plus hacker attacks, viruses, worms, calendar-time bombs, and external
denial-of-service attacks (to mention just a few security risks). The
proprietary nature of the election software results in voters having
to trust software that is seldom subjected to external scrutiny. However,
even open examination of the software would not be enough to prevent
election fraud. I have grave doubts that fully electronic voting systems
will ever be adequately fraud resistant. Interestingly, the problem
of attaining high-integrity election systems is a paradigmatic example
of the general system security problems, opening up many of the usual
problems -- inadequate requirements, lack of adequate standards, unverified
proprietary software, and many unchecked operational problems.
Attempts to hinder Internet spamming attacks
(with potentially huge amounts of unsolicited and often offensive e-mail)
by legislation requiring filtering are
always going to be of limited effectiveness. Simplistic spam filters
are usually counterproductive, as they have often filtered out such
content as the Bible, encyclopaedias, valuable Web sites and people's
names because they contained some particular character string (Sussex
and Essex are common examples), and other generally desirable materials.
One conclusion from the above discussion is very
simple: we are not progressing sufficiently in our attempts to achieve
acceptable information security. Essentially everything I wrote in my
1995 book  about computer-related risks -- and particularly security
risks -- still seems to apply today.
A broadly coordinated effort is needed, not just
palliative measures. In principle, technological problems need technological
solutions, not legal solutions. Legal problems need laws and enforcement,
not technological solutions. In general, technologists are better at understanding
the technical problems, and similarly for the legal communities. Mismatched
solutions tend not to be effective. However, many of our emerging problems
require a careful combination of approaches cognizant of the full spectrum
of social, economic, technological, legal, and other needs. Nevertheless,
at the very minimum, we need vastly improved security, reliability, dependability,
and survivability in the face of adversity, in the computer and communication
systems on which we critically depend for so many things.
It is unfortunate that many important research
advances are not finding their way into practice. In the research community,
we have known how to do much better for a long time. For example, many
approaches for developing and operating vastly more secure systems and
networks can be found in a recent report , including system and network
architectures that sharply reduce the necessity for trusting potentially
untrustworthy components and individuals, while also realizing extensive
interoperability and ability to evolve over time while still fulfilling
the desired requirements. However, many factors have contributed to our
having less information security than we deserve, including (for example)
U.S. Government's past restrictions on cryptography policy, the House's
predominant concern with the immediate future rather than looking farther
ahead, corporations often determined to deliver functionality without
regard to security, customers lacking awareness of the risks, and a general
lack of commitment to progress.
What Might Congress Do?
To begin with, Congress should avoid repressive
legislation that disincentivizes better security, as has been the case
for example with past constraints on the use of cryptography and the implicit
sanctioning of weak systems. Unfortunately, on the other hand, leaving
progress solely to the marketplace evidently does not work, because there
are very few financial incentives to significantly improve security in
the absence of serious government and customer demands. The DMCA legislation
is already causing enormous grief in dumbing down progress and hampering
the research community's ability to inspire improved security; that needs
to be revised.
There are various roles that the National Institute
of Standards and Technology (NIST) could play, particularly in the development
of relevant interoperable vendor-nonspecific security standards. Although
the Common Criteria are emerging as a potential framework for security,
there is still much to be done to make that process realistic. For example,
NIST (when it was the National Bureau of Standards) was actively involved
in election standards; a serious application of the Common Criteria to
voting systems would be a major step forward. H.R. 1165 could be a possible
step in that direction for security standards of general applicability.
Another direction to consider would be liability
legislation. Emerging one state at a time in state legislatures, UCITA
among other things allows information-system developers and vendors to
disclaim essentially all liability for failures of their products. Perhaps
Federal legislation that imposes strict liabilities and consequential
damages for grossly negligent system development and flagrant corporate
misbehavior would go a long way toward ratcheting up the dependability,
reliability, and security of our information infrastructures.
Relevant research and development efforts are still
needed to provide the basis for dramatically increasing the security and
reliability of our computer systems and networks. However, that research
also needs to find its way into systems that are procured by the U.S.
Government, setting a good example for others.
Improved computer-related education is an area
strongly in need of support, to attempt to overcome many of the problems
Overall, there are few incentives today for the
development, operation, and maintenance of robust, secure, reliable computer-communication
systems that are so badly needed as a basis for our future. That needs
to be corrected.
(Hot links to the references are included in the
Web version of this document: http://www.csl.sri.com/neumann/house01.html).
1. Peter G. Neumann, Computer-Related Risks
and the National Infrastructures. U.S. House Science Committee Subcommittee
on Technology, 6 November 1997. In The Role of Computer Security in
Protecting U.S. Infrastructures, Hearing, 105th Congress, 1st session,
No. 33, 1998, pages 64--99, ISBN 0-16-056151-5, 1997, preceded by the
oral presentation on pages 61--63. Oral responses to oral questions are
on pages 101--118, and written responses to subsequent written questions
are on pages 148--161. ( Written testimony at http://www.csl.sri.com/neumann/house97.html
and written responses to written questions at http://www.csl.sri.com/neumann/house97.ans
2. Peter G. Neumann, Melissa is Just the Tip
of a Titanic Iceberg. Written testimony, for the U.S. House Science
Committee Subcommittee on Technology, hearing on 15 April 1999. ( Written
testimony at http://www.csl.sri.com/neumann/house99.html)
3. Peter G. Neumann, Risks in Our Information
Infrastructures: The Tip of a Titanic Iceberg Is Still All That Is Visible.
Written testimony, for the U.S. House Science Committee Subcommittee on
Technology, hearing on 10 May 2000, introduced into the record by Keith
Rhodes of the General Accounting Office on my behalf. ( Written testimony
4. Tom Marsh (ed), Critical Foundations: Protecting
America's Infrastructures, President's Commission on Critical Infrastructure
Protection, October 1997. (CIAO Web site at http://www.ciao.org and PCCIP
report information at http://www.ciao.org/PCCIP/index.htm)
5. Peter G. Neumann, Computer-Related Risks,
Addison-Wesley, 1995. 6. Peter G. Neumann, Practical Architectures
for Survivable Systems and Networks, SRI report for the U.S. Army
Research Laboratory, 30 June 2000. ( html, PostScript, and pdf versions
available at http://www.csl.sri.com/neumann)