False Equivalence

Again and again over the years, I’ve listened to people excuse Microsoft’s chronic insecurity and apparent inability to escape from its virus-infected legacy. This in spite of the fact that the nearly boundless contagion of the Microsoft world has yet to spread into other, increasingly popular areas of technology.

The claim typically runs like this:

If Linux or OS X ever exceed Microsoft’s market share you’ll see the malware flood onto them too.

The logic behind this statement runs more or less as follows:

  1. Windows gets attacked a lot because it’s the most commonly used computing platform in the world.
  2. The majority of exploits these days are due to so-called Stupid User Tricks – people are gullible, witless creatures who will click on anything appropriately enticing.
  3. There is no way to tackle this behaviour using only technical means.
  4. On top of that, all software has bugs. If you build something of equal complexity to the Windows operating system, you’re guaranteed to leave holes that the Black Hats will exploit.
  5. And anyway, most of the exploits coming out recently attack flaws in third party software. These days, Adobe’s applications (particularly Flash and Acrobat) are getting perforated on a nearly weekly basis.
  6. But why don’t the bad guys attack iPhones, Blackberries or Linux servers? Well, that’s simple economics of scale. If the reward for crafting a new Windows exploit is measured in hundreds of thousands or even millions of PCs infected, and the reward for creating even a simple exploit on a competing platform can only be measured in the hundreds or thousands… well, which would you choose?
  7. So to sum up: Microsoft bears the proverbial White Man’s Burden of supporting the vast majority of benighted, clueless users, suffering the slings and arrows of its outrageous fortune. And all you MacHeads or Linux geeks: you should be bowing your heads and saying, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

So people should really be grateful to Microsoft for offering itself as a target, for shouldering the unenviable burden of having to support the thoughtless, unwatched masses.

This argument is invalid in many respects. Ultimately, it relies on false equivalence: If no software application can be 100% secured, all software is therefore equally insecure.

The big problem with usefully countering this argument, however, lies in the fact that the answer is quite nuanced and therefore not compressible into a 20 second elevator speech.

On the face of it, there is something to the argument that popularity makes Windows a target. Black Hats often do go to inordinate lengths to craft malicious software aimed at Microsoft Windows. And they often ignore holes in other operating systems. A few years ago, it was discovered that a number of Linux distributions had a gaping flaw in software used to secure websites, email and other private communications, all deriving from a single error introduced by a software package maintainer. Not only was the flaw jaw-droppingly obvious, but it had lain there undiscovered for nearly 18 moths.

I commented at the time that:

[p]eople at every stage of the production process and everywhere else in the system trusted that the others were doing their job competently. This includes crackers and others with a vested interest in compromising the code. I should exclude from this list those who might have a reasonable motivation to exploit the vulnerability with stealth and to leave no traces. If, however, even they didn’t notice the danger presented by this tiny but fundamental change in the code base, well my point becomes stronger.

So yes, it must be granted that some software benefits from an occasionally unwarranted assumption of strength. But, the occasional WTF moment notwithstanding, this assumption doesn’t come from nowhere. Linux has earned itself a dominant position in the server market because it actually is more robust, less resource-intensive and yes, more secure than Windows server. (Why these successes haven’t translated into widespread success on desktop PCs is flamebait for another day….)

But point 2 states that, even if it did succeed on the desktop, Mac OS or Linux would still be vulnerable to the same Stupid User Tricks as Windows. But wait – at what point does a platform become a useful target for mass exploitation? 10 million? How about 41 million and rising? Are iPhone users more sophisticated than their Windows-using counterparts? Contrary to what the advertisements tell us, sadly no. Do they use them for the same purposes as Windows (like online cash transactions, email, etc.)? Sure ’nuff.

So why aren’t they being attacked and exploited? Well, when we mentioned the numbers game, we forgot to mention another basic aspect of economic theory: Risk. IPhones and iPads and various other devices from Apple exist in what’s known as a walled garden. Unless you deliberately ‘jail break’ your device, you’re largely reliant on Apple’s App store, and you’re beholden as well to the telco that charges you for every byte you send. Not only is there a strong incentive to phone users to closely monitor their bandwidth use, Apple also insists on evaluating every single app that runs on its platform.

Likewise, most Linux software is installed from repositories maintained by the various commercial or community-run distributions. Oversights like the notorious SSL flaw are rare indeed. On one occasion a server that distributed packages for a popular web server was found to be compromised. The problem was fixed quickly. These days, most software is digitally signed so that the installer can verify that it has not been altered by third parties.

Argue all you like about the limitations of these approaches (and there are more than a few), they do increase the likelihood of getting caught while trying to inject something nasty onto someone’s iPhone or Linux box. Rather than being trusting by default, these systems have built a chain of trust between agents in the system. Each of these agents is verifiably trustworthy, so anyone compromising the system is subject to discovery.

Such scrutiny is largely missing from the Windows environment. At best, it’s provided ex post facto, via anti-malware applications.

This means that users of different systems can be equally trusting, with significantly different outcomes.

All computing environments are not created equal. While Microsoft has staked its entire business on giving the customer convenience at any cost, others have not. They realised that you have to be careful not to make software easy for anyone at all – especially not a total stranger.

Windows is the target for authors of malicious software, therefore, because the whole Windows environment is attractive:

  • Security is not at all systematic. Even as Windows itself improves, many popular application vendors lag, partly because they want to keep things easy, partly because security is seen as a cost-centre and therefore treated as an externality by ambitious managers.
  • Risk is low. A wide-open trust-by-default philosophy permeates all levels of the system, so you really have to be spectacularly dumb or naive to get caught.
  • AND… Windows is ridiculously popular.

I’m not for a moment suggesting that writing malware as a business won’t continue after Windows is long gone. Of course it will. I will predict, though, that the era of mass-infection will end with Windows XP.

Just as US banks in the 1920s-30s learned (eventually) to make themselves less susceptible to bank robbers (whose activity peaked at that time due to recent improvements in transportation –good roads and a getaway car made robbery popular), personal and institutional computing will eventually learn to take malware in stride, to reduce the scope of any given exploit from its current colossal size to something much smaller.

There will always be another rube willing to allow another con-man to fleece him. There will always be innocent victims who get mugged because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. There will always be ‘bad neighbourhoods’ on the Internet. But to suggest, as the some do, that this somehow excuses the appallingly poor security models, practices and culture that ensure Microsoft’s continued relegation to the security gutter… well, that’s just disingenuous.

To tar other OSes with the same brush is to suggest that one should not move to another bank because, once enough people move to it, it too will become the target of bank robbers. It’s wrong because:

1. Nobody is suggesting that everyone has to move all their money to one single bank;
2. The new bank might not be perfectly secure, but at least it doesn’t leave all the money in a pile in the middle of the floor.

This move to a more heterogeneous and inherently secure environment will happen in small increments, and the process will lurch along in fits and starts, but it is far more likely to happen than another single, monolithic operating environment taking over from Microsoft Windows – and I include future versions of Microsoft Windows in that grouping.

And that, my friend, is why I find the contention that ‘Linux and Mac OS will be just as bad when they get popular‘ to be inane, misleading and, frankly, intellectually lazy.

Posted: November 28th, 2010
Categories: geek, hard-core, wonk
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