10 security technologies destined for the dustbin

Systemic flaws and a rapidly shifting threatscape spell doom for many of today’s trusted security technologies

10 security technologies destined for the dustbin
NEC Corp. of America (CC BY 2.0)

Perhaps nothing, not even the weather, changes as fast as computer technology. With that brisk pace of progress comes a grave responsibility: securing it.

Every wave of new tech, no matter how small or esoteric, brings with it new threats. The security community slaves to keep up and, all things considered, does a pretty good job against hackers, who shift technologies and methodologies rapidly, leaving last year’s well-recognized attacks to the dustbin.

Have you had to enable the write-protect notch on your floppy disk lately to prevent boot viruses or malicious overwriting? Have you had to turn off your modem to prevent hackers from dialing it at night? Have you had to unload your ansi.sys driver to prevent malicious text files from remapping your keyboard to make your next keystroke reformat your hard drive? Did you review your autoexec.bat and config.sys files to make sure no malicious entries were inserted to autostart malware?

Not so much these days -- hackers have moved on, and the technology made to prevent older hacks like these is no longer top of mind. Sometimes we defenders have done such a good job that the attackers decided to move on to more fruitful options. Sometimes a particular defensive feature gets removed because the good guys determined it didn't protect that well in the first place or had unexpected weaknesses.

If you, like me, have been in the computer security world long enough, you’ve seen a lot of security tech come and go. It’s almost to the point where you can start to predict what will stick and be improved and what will sooner or later become obsolete. The pace of change in attacks and technology alike mean that even so-called cutting-edge defenses, like biometric authentication and advanced firewalls, will eventually fail and go away. Surveying today's defense technologies, here's what I think is destined for the history books.

Check back in five to 10 years to see what I got right. I bet it’s more than you might think.

Doomed security technology No. 1: Biometric authentication

Biometric authentication is tantalizing cure-all for log-on security. After all, using your face, fingerprint, DNA, or some other biometric marker seems like the perfect log-on credential -- to someone who doesn't specialize in log-on authentication. As far as those experts are concerned, it’s not so much that biometric methods are rarely as accurate as most people think; it's more that, once stolen, your biometric markers can't be changed.

Take your fingerprints. Most people have only 10. Anytime your fingerprints are used as a biometric logon, those fingerprints -- or, more accurately, the digital representations of those fingerprints -- must be stored for future log-on comparison. Unfortunately, log-on credentials are far too often compromised or stolen. If the bad guy steals the digital representation of your fingerprints, how could any system tell the difference between your real fingerprints and their previously accepted digital representations?

In that case, the only solution might be to tell every system in the world that might rely on your fingerprints to not rely on your fingerprints, if that were even possible. The same is true for any other biometric marker. You'll have a hard time repudiating your real DNA, face, retina scan, and so on if a bad player gets their hands on the digital representation of those biometric markers.

That doesn’t even take into account issues around systems that only allow you to logon if you use, say, your fingerprint when you can no longer reliably use your fingerprint. What then?                                              

Biometric markers used in conjunction with a secret only you know (password, PIN, and so on) are one way to defeat hackers that have your biometric logon marker. Of course mental secrets can be captured as well, as happens often with nonbiometric two-factor log-on credentials like smartcards and USB key fobs. In those instances, admins can easily issue you a new physical factor and you can pick a new PIN or password. That isn't the case when one of the factors is your body.

While biometric logons are fast becoming a trendy security feature, there's a reason they aren’t -- and won't ever be -- ubiquitous. Once people realize that biometric logons aren't what they pretend to be, they will lose popularity and either disappear, always require a second form of authentication, or only be used when high-assurance identification is not needed.

Doomed security technology No. 2: SSL

Secure Socket Layer was invented by long-gone Netscape in 1995. For two decades it served us adequately. But if you haven't heard, it is irrevocably broken and can't be repaired, thanks to the Poodle attack. SSL’s replacement, TLS (Transport Layer Security), is slightly better. Of all the doomed security tech discussed in this article, SSL is the closest to be being replaced, as it should no longer be used.

The problem? Hundreds of thousands of websites rely on or allow SSL. If you disable all SSL -- a common default in the latest versions of popular browsers -- all sorts of websites don't work. Or they will work, but only because the browser or application accepts "downleveling" to SSL. If it's not websites and browsers, then it's the millions of old SSH servers out there.

OpenSSH is seemingly constantly being hacked these days. While it’s true that about half of OpenSSH hacks have nothing to do with SSL, SSL vulnerabilities account for the other half. Millions of SSH/OpenSSH sites still use SSL even though they shouldn't.

Worse, terminology among tech pros is contributing to the problem, as nearly everyone in the computer security industry calls TLS digital certificates "SSL certs" though they don't use SSL. It's like calling a copy machine a Xerox when it's not that brand. If we’re going to hasten the world off SSL, we need to start calling TLS certs "TLS certs.

Make a vow today: Don't use SSL ever, and call Web server certs TLS certs. That's what they are or should be. The sooner we get rid of the word "SSL," the sooner it will be relegated to history's dustbin.

Doomed security technology No. 3: Public key encryption

This may surprise some people, but most of the public key encryption we use today -- RSA, Diffie-Hellman, and so on -- is predicted to be readable as soon as quantum computing and cryptography are figured out. Many, including this author, have been long (and incorrectly) predicting that usable quantum computing was mere years away. But when researchers finally get it working, most known public encryption ciphers, including the popular ones, will be readily broken. Spy agencies around the world have been saving encrypted secrets for years waiting for the big breakthrough -- or, if you believe some rumors, they already have solved the problem and are reading all our secrets.

Some crypto experts, like Bruce Schneier, have long been dubious about the promise of quantum cryptography. But even the critics can't dismiss the likelihood that, once it's figured out, any secret encrypted by RSA, Diffie-Hellman, and even ECC are immediately readable.

That's not to say there aren't quantum-resistant cipher algorithms. There are a few, including lattice-based cryptography and Supersingular Isogeny Key Exchange. But if your public cipher isn't one of those, you're out of luck if and when quantum computing becomes widespread.

(Note: Hats off to reader Tony Ropson for educating me about quantum-resistant ciphers.)

Doomed security technology No. 4: IPsec

When enabled, IPsec allows all network traffic between two or more points to be cryptographically protected for packet integrity and privacy, aka encrypted. Invented in 1993 and made an open standard in 1995, IPsec is widely supported by hundreds of vendors and used on millions of enterprise computers.

Unlike most of the doomed security defenses discussed in this article, IPsec works and works great. But its problems are two-fold.

First, although widely used and deployed, it has never reached the critical mass necessary to keep it in use for much longer. Plus, IPsec is complex and isn't supported by all vendors. Worse, it can often be defeated by only one device in between the source and destination that does not support it -- such as a gateway or load balancer. At many companies, the number of computers that get IPsec exceptions is greater than the number of computers forced to use it.

IPsec's complexity also creates performance issues. When enabled, it can significantly slow down every connection using it, unless you deploy specialized IPsec-enabled hardware on both sides of the tunnel. Thus, high-volume transaction servers such as databases and most Web servers simply can’t afford to employ it. And those two types of servers are precisely where most important data resides. If you can't protect most data, what good is it?

Plus, despite being a "common" open standard, IPsec implementations don't typically work between vendors, another factor that has slowed down or prevented widespread adoption of IPsec.

But the death knell for IPsec is the ubiquity of HTTPS. When you have HTTPS enabled, you don't need IPsec. It's an either/or decision, and the world has spoken. HTTPS has won. As long as you have a valid TLS digital certificate and a compatible client, it works: no interoperability problems, low complexity. There is some performance impact, but it’s not noticeable to most users. The world is quickly becoming a default world of HTTPS. As that progresses, IPsec dies.

Doomed security technology No. 5: Firewalls

The ubiquity of HTTPS essentially spells the doom of the traditional firewall. I wrote about this in 2012, creating a mini-firestorm that won me invites to speak at conferences all over the world.

Some people would say I was wrong. Three years later, firewalls are still everywhere. True, but most aren't configured and almost all don't have the "least permissive, block-by-default" rules that make a firewall valuable in the first place. Most firewalls I come across have overly permissive rules. I often see "Allow All ANY ANY" rules, which essentially means the firewall is worse than useless. It's doing nothing but slowing down network connections.

Anyway you define a firewall, it must include some portion that allows only specific, predefined ports in order to be useful. As the world moves to HTTPS-only network connections, all firewalls will eventually have only a few rules -- HTTP/HTTPS and maybe DNS. Other protocols, such ads DNS, DHCP, and so on, will likely start using HTTPS-only too. In fact, I can't imagine a future that doesn't end up HTTPS-only. When that happens, what of the firewall?

The main protection firewalls offer is to secure against a remote attack on a vulnerable service. Remotely vulnerable services, usually exploited by one-touch, remotely exploitable buffer overflows, used to be among the most common attacks. Look at the Robert Morris Internet worm, Code Red, Blaster, and SQL Slammer. But when's the last time you heard of a global, fast-acting buffer overflow worm? Probably not since the early 2000s, and none of those were as bad as the worms from the 1980s and 1990s. Essentially, if you don't have an unpatched, vulnerable listening service, then you don't need a traditional firewall -- and right now you don't. Yep, you heard me right. You don't need a firewall.

Firewall vendors often write to tell me that their "advanced" firewall has features beyond the traditional firewall that makes theirs worth buying. Well, I've been waiting for more than two decades for "advanced firewalls" to save the day. It turns out they don't. If they perform "deep packet inspection" or signature scanning, it either slows down network traffic too much, is rife with false positives, or scans for only a small subset of attacks. Most "advanced" firewalls scan for a few dozen to a few hundred attacks. These days, more than 390,000 new malware programs are registered every day, not including all the hacker attacks that are indistinguishable from legitimate activity.

Even when firewalls do a perfect job at preventing what they say they prevent, they don't really work, given that they don't stop the two biggest malicious attacks most organizations face on a daily basis: unpatched software and social engineering.

Put it this way: Every customer and person I know currently running a firewall is as hacked as someone who doesn't. I don't fault firewalls. Perhaps they worked so well back in the day that hackers moved on to other sorts of attacks. For whatever reason, firewalls are nearly useless today and have been trending in that direction for more than a decade.

Doomed security technology No. 6: Antivirus scanners

Depending on whose statistics you believe, malware programs currently number in the tens to hundreds of millions -- an overwhelming fact that has rendered antivirus scanners nearly useless.

Not entirely useless, because they stop 80 to 99.9 percent of attacks against the average user. But the average user is exposed to hundreds of malicious programs every year; even with the best odds, the bad guy wins every once in a while. If you keep your PC free from malware for more than a year, you've done something special.

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