Digg this story   Add to del.icio.us  
Stop Being a Victim
Tim Mullen, 2004-04-27

An influential newspaper columnist blames "contemptuous techies" for allowing users to fall prey to viruses and spyware. But don't some users deserve a little contempt?

Writing these columns gets tough sometimes. It can be quite a challenge to keep content current while trying to add value by driving home the basic concepts of security without sounding like a broken record.

But it is clear to me that even today, with products like XP and Windows 2003, many people still live in a world of Windows 95 and NT. Many people still don't get what it will take in order for end-user and enterprise security alike to be a success. So, here I go again, even at the risk of being repetitive.

Walt Mossberg's Wall Street Journal Personal Technology column entitled "Stop Blaming the Victims" ran over a month ago, but it has been bugging me ever since I read it-- and even more so after a recent "SANS NewsBites" piece quoted an excerpt from it, as if it were so insightful that we all couldn't go without reading it again. If it was some charlatan with a Web page, I wouldn't give it a second thought- but this is the Wall Street Journal, and I couldn't let it pass without a rebuttal.

I think that it is almost entirely wrong, and that in its wrongness, it illustrates what is most problematic with computer security today and the real reason why security issues persist.

But before I launch into that, let's start with a joke:

Raging floods in the heartland had forced a man to the second story of his home. Rescuers in a boat came by and pleaded with the man to jump in. "No," he said. "My faith will save me." Soon, the rising waters forced him to the roof. Another boat came by, again calling for him to jump in. "No. My faith will save me." Finally, while standing upon his chimney, a helicopter flew by with a ladder lowered, and yet again called for him to save himself. Steadfast, he cried out that his faith would save him and waved the chopper on. The water rose, and the man drowned.

In the afterlife, while standing before the Supreme Being in which he believed, he asked, "Why did you let this happen to me? I believed in you!" The Supreme Being replied "Hey, I sent you two boats and a helicopter. What more do you want from me?"

The thesis of Mossberg's piece is that end users don't care about what an attack is, be it "a virus, a worm, a Trojan horse, a browser hijacker, spyware, adware or just spam," and that Microsoft and other vendors have badly failed the consumer because there is no single, unified mechanism in place to protect the end user from all of these issues, regardless of what it is, or how it works, or how it got into the system.

The solution to this, Mossberg says, is to have "effective, free, constantly updated security service requiring little or no user intervention" which would "fend off all kinds of threats and invasions of privacy, including viruses and spyware, without getting all tangled up in academic distinctions." Since Microsoft makes billions of dollars off of the victim user from its "court-certified" monopoly, and the Bush Administration turns a blind eye to it, according to Mossberg, they owe us.

It is fantasy: nothing like that will ever exist, as it simply cannot. New threats emerge every day with new associated risks, and there will never be any unified solution to the sea of possible attacks. Even if there were, and Microsoft were to provide all products outlined to combat these issues, the government would stop them. It would be "unfair to the competition."

Wallowing in Victimization
The solution is not some Deus ex Machina to magically solve all security issues. The solution is for the end user to start caring. Honestly, I continue to waver on whether or not this will ever happen, but I'm sure that if end users don't start taking some responsibility in learning Safe Surfing, that these problems (and others) will always exist. Windows 2003 offers tremendous security mechanisms; XP Service Pack 2 as well. Yet this is all ignored by those who pretend to understand the problem.

According to Mossberg, IT and security people like you and me -- well, me for certain -- are the problem, because we call the end user stupid for executing viruses. And even though the article outlines multiple warnings from multiple security mechanisms that the user must purposefully disregard in order to infect themselves, it is still our fault when they do so. And apparently, we are wrong for saying so. We're to blame because we say they are to blame.

Mossberg retorts with, "Well, I have a word for these contemptuous techies: Save your energy for solving the problem instead of blaming its victims. Mainstream users shouldn't have to be IT experts to operate their computers."

In a word? Um, that's 24 words. If that statement were computer code rather than consumer criticism, it would be... wait for it... a buffer overflow. Allocate one word and stuff it with 24. No boundary checking. Oh, the irony.

I've looked high and low to references from security people calling for the end user to be an IT expert to use their system, and I couldn't find one. You don't have to be a master chef in order to cook meats properly. You don't have to be a master mechanic to drive a car, nor do you have to be a NASCAR driver in order to buckle up and not drink and drive.

And you don't have to be a computer expert to load AV software and install a firewall.

We are not wasting energy blaming stupid users. We are calling for users to take a little time and to learn minimal skills before attaching their systems to the Internet. The time it takes for these innocents to wallow in victimization would be far better spent actually reading all those message boxes telling you that you are about to screw up your system before clicking OK. If I have to deal with people angered by being called "stupid" for doing so, yet help raise the overall level of security consciousness in the process, then that is a burden I am happy to accept.



SecurityFocus columnist Timothy M. Mullen is Vice President of Consulting Services for NGSSoftware.
    Digg this story   Add to del.icio.us  
Comments Mode:
Stop Being a Victim 2004-04-28
Clownface (2 replies)
Stop Being a Victim 2004-04-28
Matthew Murphy
Stop Being a Victim 2004-04-28
Curt (1 replies)
Stop Being a Victim 2004-04-30
Anonymous (3 replies)
Stop Being a Victim 2004-05-02
Eu (1 replies)
Stop Being a Victim 2004-05-07
Anonymous
Stop Being a Victim 2004-05-03
Anonymous
Stop Being a Victim 2004-05-06
zaster (1 replies)
Re: Stop Being a Victim 2005-07-10
Harold
Stop Being a Victim 2004-04-28
Anonymous (1 replies)
Cost to be a victim 2004-04-29
Ed (1 replies)
Re: Cost to be a victim 2005-07-10
Harold
Stop Being a Victim 2004-04-28
Ivan
Stop Being a Victim 2004-04-28
Anonymous
Un-tech-friendly people 2004-04-28
iago (1 replies)
Un-tech-friendly people 2004-04-29
AnonYmousE
Stop Being a Victim 2004-04-28
Paul (2 replies)
Stop Being a Victim 2004-05-01
Anonymous
Stop Being a Victim 2004-05-07
Anonymous
Stop Being a Victim 2004-04-28
Bob Beck
Stop Being a Victim 2004-04-28
It's not MY Fault
Another d00zie from Mellon... 2004-04-28
Linux Sux (1 replies)
Another d00zie from Mellon... 2004-04-28
iago (2 replies)
Another d00zie from Mellon... 2004-04-29
Anonymous
Another d00zie from Mellon... 2004-05-01
Anonymous
Stop Being a Victim 2004-04-28
Anonymous (2 replies)
Stop Being a Victim 2004-04-28
Anonymous
Stop Being a Victim 2004-04-28
Micheal
Stop Being a Victim 2004-04-28
Anonymous (1 replies)
Stop Being a Victim 2004-04-29
Anonymous
Stop Being a Victim 2004-04-28
Anonymous (4 replies)
Stop Being a Victim 2004-04-28
contemptuoustechie
Stop Being a Victim 2004-04-28
Anonymous
Stop Being a Victim 2004-04-28
Anonymous
Stop Being a Victim 2004-04-28
Anonymous (1 replies)
Stop Being a Victim 2004-05-08
Anonymous
The truth lies somewhere in between 2004-04-28
incongruity
Stop Being a Victim 2004-04-28
A non-ymoose
Stop Being a Victim 2004-04-29
DocB
Victim !!? 2004-04-29
Mandar
Stop Being a Victim 2004-04-29
HiVeloCT
I don't think people get it ... 2004-04-30
Robert Escue
Be careful what you wish for... 2004-04-30
Anonymous
COMPLETE NONSENSE 2004-04-30
I Have Google Shares (2 replies)
COMPLETE NONSENSE 2004-05-04
Anonymous
COMPLETE NONSENSE 2004-05-04
Anonymous
Stop Being a Victim 2004-05-03
Anonymous
Getting End-Users to Wake Up 2004-05-03
I'mNotThatSmart
Little Gain in Finger Pointing 2004-05-03
Anonymous (1 replies)
Little Gain in Finger Pointing 2004-05-04
Anonymous (1 replies)
Little Gain in Finger Pointing 2004-05-05
Anonymous
User Certification 2004-05-04
gnot a gnome
Stop Being a Victim 2004-05-04
Anonymous
Stop Being a Victim 2004-05-04
Anonymous
Stop Being a Victim 2004-05-05
Anonymous
Stop Being a Victim 2004-05-05
BrinH
What next? 2004-05-06
Anonymous
Stop Being a Victim 2004-05-07
Jeroen
Stop Being a Victim 2004-05-08
blacklight
Half working 'solutions' 2004-05-10
Anonymous
Fantastic 2004-05-10
mind-ops.com (James Carter)
Stop Being a Victim 2007-08-08
Afterfreeze


 

Privacy Statement
Copyright 2010, SecurityFocus