Learning from History

Everyone knows the story of Clifford Stoll and and West-German KGB hackers (see the video below) in the late 80s.  Does this history teach us something today? What strikes me as I watch this documentary again is the effort ratio between attackers and defenders. To fight a small adversary group, Stoll invested considerable effort, and from some point involved further people and organizations in the hunt. In effect, once they had been detected, the attackers were on their way to being overpowered and apprehended.

Today, we take more organized approaches to security management and incident response. However, at the same time we try to become more efficient: we want to believe in automated mechanisms like data leakage prevention and policy enforcement. But these mechanisms work on abstractions – they are less complicated than actual attacks. We also want to believe in preventive security design, but soon find ourselves engaged in an eternal arms race as our designs never fully anticipate how attackers adapt. Can procedures and programs be smart enough to fend off intelligent attackers, or does it still take simply more brains on the defender’s than on the attacker’s part to win?



About Sven Türpe

Sven Türpe is a computer scientist. His current research focus is on security engineering methods, techniques, and tools. All opinions expressed in this blog are his own.