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Security Analogies
Scott Granneman, 2007-05-29

The following is a written version of a speech I gave at The Open Solutions Summit (AKA LinuxWorld NY) in New York City in February. It's long, but I think you will find it interesting. If you want to get to the website I announced, jump to the last section.

I'm not a sports guy, by any means. I leave that up to my brother, who's the Equipment Manager for the New York Jets. Even when we were kids, I'd much rather read than play sports, and watching them was sheer torture; my brother was of course the exact opposite. Anything sports-related was total heaven for him.

Never let it be said, however, that I can't find the truth in a sports anecdote. One of my favorite sports stories concerns Frank Layden, of the Utah Jazz, and his alleged comment about a former player. The story goes that Layden was having problems with this player, so he took him aside and said, "Son, what is it with you? Is it ignorance or apathy?" The player thought a moment and then replied, in all sincerity, "Coach, I don't know and I don't care."

I was thinking about that story a few months ago when I was asked during a Q&A why it is that people don't care about security very much. Oh, they might say that they care, and profess actual concern, but the actions of most folks speak otherwise. There are many answers to that question, but two of the biggest culprits come down to the problems Layden raised: ignorance and apathy.


Keep in mind that ignorance doesn't mean stupidity. Instead, ignorance means lack of knowledge. If you don't know fire burns and you put your finger into a flame, that's ignorance; if you know fire burns but you put your finger into the flame anyway, well, that's stupidity (which brings to mind one of the best lines from a great movie, The Princess Bride: "Ha ha! You fool! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders! The most famous is never get involved in a land war in Asia, but only slightly less well-known is this: never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!").

As I've spoken to groups around the country and taught classes at Washington University in St. Louis over the years, I've run into ignorance. Students have said things like "I had no idea there was such a thing as open source" and "I learned that I need to take care of all the security problems on my computer." I don't condemn the people who said those things; they honestly didn't know that open source software existed, and they really didn't know what they needed to do to keep their computers safer. The important thing, however, is that they knew now, that they had been educated.

Indifference - or apathy - is an issue, but I believe Socrates was correct when he said "The only good is knowledge and the only evil is ignorance." In other words, Socrates believed that if a person knew the right thing to do, he more than likely would do it. To bring that maxim into the modern age, if someone knows that she should use anti-virus software, she's far more likely to do so; in fact, she probably will.

I've written many articles for SecurityFocus that try to educate Joe and Jane Computeruser: "A Home User's Security Checklist for Windows". "Pass the Chocolate". "Time to Dump Internet Explorer". "Infected In Twenty Minutes". "The big DRM mistake". "Surprises Inside Microsoft Vista's EULA". I can only do so much, however. As I've pointed out many times, those who have knowledge about computers and security - in other words, you, yes, YOU, the person reading this column - need to educate the ignorant, which is everyone else.

"OK, great idea, Scott," I know some of you are saying right now. "But how?"

The wrong way to explain concepts

The answer boils down to language. We have to learn to speak to quote-unquote normal people about computers and security in a manner that they can understand and that will inspire them to act in a responsible manner. This really hit home for me when I was reviewing a podcast to see if it would be suitable for my students. The podcast was number 8 in the Security Now! series by Leo Laporte and Steve Gibson, and its subject was Denial of Service attacks. A few minutes in, this dialogue takes place:

Leo: Let's first explain what a simple denial of service attack is.

Steve: Well, the idea is, any kind of packet traffic which can cause problems for the receiving end can create what's called a "denial of service," you know, the term meaning, of course, that whatever service you are trying to get is being denied you by someone, for whatever reason, who wants that to happen. So, for example, in the old days, websites used to have their web servers brought down by people doing something called a "SYN flood," S-Y-N. A SYN packet is the first packet of a TCP connection. When a user's browser, for example, wants to connect to a web server, it'll send a SYN packet. The web server allocates some resources to get ready for this connection, sends back what's called a SYN/ACK packet, and then a final ACK packet is returned to the server. What that does is that verifies the communication path between these two endpoints, the user's browser and the server, and sort of establishes the communication.

As I listened to this, I thought, "There is no frickin' way my non-technical students are gonna understand a word he's saying! SYN? ACK? Packet? TCP? Forget it!" I abandoned the podcast and thought about how I always explained DoS to my students successfully in the past. And then it hit me: I used an analogy. The more I thought about how I successfully communicated ideas to my students, the more I tabulated the analogies that I used. I realized that analogies are key in educating your average computer user about security, just as they are the most effective way to explain to any of us a concept that comes from outside our field of study, or realm of expertise.

The centrality of analogy

Analogies are basic to how humans use language. Many of us got used to them from standardized tests in school, in which an analogy was presented with one key factor left out, which we then had to choose from five choices. For instance, this might be understood by the American football-loving computer guys out there:

Rex Grossman : Football :: Windows : ???

Analogies aren't just limited to tests taken with a number two lead pencil, however. Lots of branches of human understanding utilize analogies, from Philosophy to Physics, Engineering to Law, and Literature to Political Science. Thomas Hobbes' famous Leviathan, a monumental work of political analysis from 1651, contained this illustration as its frontspiece:

Frontspiece to Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan
(Click the image for a much larger, much more detailed look)

The image illustrates graphically Hobbes' point about the makeup of a well-governed society, in which it is composed of the mass of people together, each performing their function willingly and harmoniously. Hobbes himself perfectly annotates the drawing above in the following passage from the Introduction to the Leviathan:

For by art is created that great LEVIATHAN called a COMMONWEALTH, or STATE (in Latin, CIVITAS), which is but an artificial man, though of greater stature and strength than the natural, for whose protection and defence it was intended; and in which the sovereignty is an artificial soul, as giving life and motion to the whole body; the magistrates and other officers of judicature and execution, artificial joints; reward and punishment (by which fastened to the seat of the sovereignty, every joint and member is moved to perform his duty) are the nerves, that do the same in the body natural; the wealth and riches of all the particular members are the strength; salus populi (the people's safety) its business; counsellors, by whom all things needful for it to know are suggested unto it, are the memory; equity and laws, an artificial reason and will; concord, health; sedition, sickness; and civil war, death.

Story continued on Page 2 

Scott Granneman teaches at Washington University in St. Louis, consults for WebSanity, and writes for SecurityFocus and Linux Magazine. His latest book, Linux Phrasebook, is in stores now.
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