Category Archives: Begriffe

The Uncertainty Principle of New Technology

Security, privacy, and safety by design sounds like a good idea. Alas, it is not going to happen, at least not with innovative technology. Collingridge’s dilemma gets in the way: When a technology is new and therefore easy to shape, we do not understand its downsides – and the non-issues to be – well enough to make informed design decisions, and once we understand the problems, changing the now established and deployed technology fundamentally becomes hard. Expressed in terms of the Cognitive Dimensions framework, technology design combines premature commitment with high viscosity later on.

With digital technology evolving at high pace, we are continually facing Collingridge’s dilemma. Big data and Internet-scale machine learning, the Internet of everything, self-driving cars, and many inventions yet to come challenge us to keep things under control without knowing what to aim for. Any technology we never created before is subject to the dilemma.

A tempting but fallacious solution is the (strong) precautionary principle: to take all possible risks seriously and treat whatever we cannot rule out as a problem. This approach is fallacious because it ignores the cost of implementation. Every possible risk is not the same as every likely risk. Trying to prevent everything that might go wrong one will inevitably end up spending too much on some possible but unlikely problems. Besides, Collingridge’s dilemma may apply to the chosen treatments as well.

As an alternative we might try to design for corrigibility so that mistakes can be easily corrected once we learn about them. With respect to the information technology domain this idea seems to echo what David Parnas proposed in his seminal paper On the criteria to be used in decomposing systems into modules (DOI: 10.1145/361598.361623). Parnas argues in this paper that software modules should hide design decisions from their surroundings, so that the inner workings of a module can be modified without affecting dependent modules. Constructs supporting this found their way into modern-day programming paradigms and languages; object-oriented programming is the most abvious application of Parnas’ idea.

But the dilemma is not that easily solved. First, software design is too narrow a scope. Technology is more than just software and can become quite viscous regardless of how easily the software is changed. Just think of the Internet and its core protocol, IP. Most operating systems come with support for IPv4 and IPv6 and there are many good reasons to move on to the new protocol version. Yet we are still waiting for the day when the Internet will abandon IPv4 in favor of IPv6. The Internet as a system is really hard to change. Nevertheless, modularity helps. When attacks against Internet banking users became widespread starting ca. 10 years ago, for example, banks in Germany managed to update their authorization mechanisms and increase security in relatively short time and with few troubles for their customers.

In their recent paper Cyber Security as Social Experiment (NSPW’14, DOI: 10.1145/2683467.2683469), Wolter Pieters, Dina Hadžiosmanović  and Francien Dechesne argue that experimentation could help us to learn more about the side effects of new technology. Since people are part of any interesting system, this amounts to running social experiments. If we do not care and just deploy a technology, this is an experiment as well, just less controlled and systematic. Particular to cyber security is the challenge of involving adversaries as they are the root of all security threats. The general challenge is to run social experiments responsibly within ethical bounds.

Even with experiments, some negative consequences will likely escape our attention. Some effects take too long before they show or show only after a technology has been deployed at a global scale. Could James Watt have thought of climate change due to the burning of fossil fuel? Probably not. But at least we understand what the meta-problem is.

Morgen kann vielleicht etwas passieren

»Ich will jedenfalls auf dieses Problem aufmerksam machen: Sicherheitsbedürfnisse sind strukturell unstillbar. Es ist gegen das Argument ‘Morgen kann vielleicht etwas passieren’ kein Kraut gewachsen.«

— Winfried Hassemer im Streitgespräch mit Wolfgang Schäuble (via Telepolis)

Zu kurz gedacht wäre allerdings, dies – und die Schlussfolgerung, dass man Grenzen setzen müsse – nur auf staatliche Sicherheitsgesetze, -behörden und -projekte zu beziehen. Der Satz gilt in alle Richtungen und für alle Sicherheitsbedürfnisse, also auch zum Beispiel für den Ruf nach mehr Datenschutz, mehr Verschlüsselung, weniger NSA und so weiter.

Morgen kann vielleicht etwas passieren. Das ist kein ausreichender Grund, auf Segnungen des Internet-Zeitalters zu verzichten, auch wenn sie Google, Facebook oder Cloud Computing heißen. Es ist nicht mal ein ausreichender Grund, sich anders zu verhalten und etwa amerikanische Dienstleister zu meiden, öfter zu verschlüsseln oder Datenpakete anders zu routen.

Morgen kann vielleicht etwas passieren. Etwas dagegen zu tun lohnt sich nur, wenn man sein individuelles Risiko nennenswert reduziert und der Aufwand im Verhältnis zur Risikoreduktion steht. Deswegen erlaube ich mir, die Snowden-Enthüllungen mit Interesse zur Kenntnis zu nehmen, in meinem alltäglichen Verhalten aber nicht weiter darauf zu reagieren. Ich habe keinerlei Anhaltspunkte dafür, dass die NSA mein Leben beeinflusst, folglich lohnt es sich auch nicht, individuelle Maßnahmen zu ergreifen.

Levels of Crime Opportunity

Just came across a crime science paper that expresses an idea similar to my security property degrees:

»In addition, for any crime, opportunities occur at several levels of aggregation. To take residential burglary as an example, a macro level, societal-level cause might be that many homes are left unguarded in the day because most people now work away from home (cf. Cohen and Felson 1979). A meso-level, neighborhood cause could be that many homes in poor public housing estates once used coin-fed fuel meters which offered tempting targets for burglars (as found in Kirkholt, Pease 1991). A micro-level level cause, determining the choices made by a burglar, could be a poorly secured door.«

(Ronald V Clarke: Opportunity makes the thief. Really? And so what?)

Clarke doesn’t elaborate any further on these macro/meso/micro levels of opportunity for crime. Maybe I’m interpreting too much into this paragraph, but in essence he seems to talk about security properties – he is discussing in his paper the proposition that opportunity is a cause of crime and reviews the literature on this subject. Opportunity means properties of places and targets.