Security Club

Sony has been getting repeatedly hacked. We’ve seen it before with the TJX incident, and many others, most of which never get reported, much less disclosed, or even discovered. In some of these cases, only email addresses are taken, or maybe passwords. In others, names and addresses are exposed, as well as medical conditions, social security numbers, and other very sensitive information. It seems to me that this is happening more often, and I think it’s for a few reasons.

Bigger Targets

The first reason is that targets are getting bigger and the rewards go up with size. Nobody is going to waste their time getting into a system with a few thousand random users when you can get tens of millions for the same effort. As more people use more sites, it’s only natural that there are going to be more million-user sites out there. This reason isn’t a big deal, it’s just the way things are.

Better Rewards

The second reason is that more companies are collecting more data about their users. This data is valuable, possibly the most valuable asset some of these companies has. Facebook and Google make much of their money from knowing about you, what you do online, the types of things you’re interested in, different ways to contact you.

Large companies like Sony can afford to take whatever information you give them and cross-reference it against various databases to get even more information about you. This lets them focus marketing efforts, tailor campaigns to you, shape product development and so on. This also lets them make the site more easy to use with pre-filled information, to increase sales and conversions.

We don’t even really question when a site asks us for our name any more. What’s the harm, right? Sure, I’ll give them my ZIP code too, and maybe even my phone number, they probably won’t call me anyways, right? Now ask yourself, why do you need to give your name, mailing address and phone number to a company to play a game where you are a pseudonymous elf?

The real answer is that they don’t. They might need it for billing purposes, but billing databases are kept much more secure for reasons I’ll explain later. They ask for this information because it’s free, and because you’ll give it to them, and because it’s valuable to them. It’s probably not protected very well, and when it gets stolen everyone shrugs, changes the password on the database, emails the FBI to make it look like they care, and gets back to more important business like social media strategies.

No Penalties

The companies involved are embarrassed and probably suffer some losses as a result, but these are mostly minor injuries. The news stories spin it to make the intruders the sole criminals, and lose interest. The only people who really pay for these incidents are the people whose data has been stolen. There are no requirements on what companies have to do to protect this information, no requirements on what they need to do if it is compromised, no penalties for being ignorant or reckless. Someone might figure out that it’s going to cost them some sales, and they put some money in the PR budget to mitigate that.

This is the reason why billing information is better secured. The credit card companies take steps to make sure you’re being at least a little responsible with this information. And in the event it leaks, the company who failed to protect it pays a real cost in terms of higher fees or even losing the ability to accept cards at all. These numbers make sense to CEOs and MBAs, so spending money to avoid them also makes sense.

How to Stop It

There are obviously a large number of technological measures that can be put in place to improve security, but there’s one that is far simpler and much more foolproof. But first, let’s look at banks. Banks as we know it have been around for a few hundred years. I’d bet that you could prove that in every single year, banks got more secure. Massive vaults, bullet-proof windows, armed guards, motion detectors, security cameras, silent alarms, behavioral analysis, biometric monitors, the list goes on and on, and all of these things actually work very well. But banks still get robbed. All the time. When was the last time you heard of a bank robber getting caught on their first attempt? They are always linked to dozens of other robberies when they do get caught. Why?

Because they’re full of money.

They can make it harder to rob them. They can make it easier to catch the people who did it. But the odds don’t always matter to someone who sees a pile of money sitting there for them to take if they can bypass these tricks.

People break into networks for many reasons, but the user data is often the pile of gold that they seek. So the most effective way to stop someone from breaking in and stealing it is to not have it in the first place. This advice works in 2011, it will work in 2020. It works on Windows, OS X and Linux. It works online and offline, mobile or laptop, and so on.

“The first rule of security club is you try not to join security club: minimize the amount of user data you store.” – Ben Adida

So if you’re in a situation where you need to figure out if your data is secure enough, or how to secure it, start with this question: Do you need it in the first place? Usability people say they want it. Marketing people say they need it. If you’re an engineer, it’s a losing battle to argue those points, because they’re right. Stop convincing people why you shouldn’t do it, and put a cost on it so they have to convince each other that it’s worth it.

Anyone who went to business school knows the cost/value balance of inventory. It’s pretty straightforward to discuss whether a warehouse should be kept opened or expanded or closed. Nobody wants to store anything for too long, or make too much product or have too many materials. But ask them about how much user data you should be storing and the response will be something like “all of it, why wouldn’t we?”.

So make sure that the conversion bump from using full names asking age and gender and doing geo-targeting covers the cost of the security measures required to protect that data. Make it clear that those costs are actually avoidable, they are not sunk. They are also not a one-time investment. They should show up every quarter on the bottom line of anyone who uses that data. And if nobody wants to pay for it, well, you’ve just solved a major part of your security problem, haven’t you?

Update 10/18/2011: “FTC Privacy Czar To Entrepreneurs: “If You Don’t Want To See Us, Don’t Collect Data You Don’t Need

Locked Doors, Open Windows

Most people with any clue about interaction design know that Jakob Nielsen is a jackass. There are thousands of other usability professionals who offer opinions as fact, don’t take their own advice, but Nielsen was there in the early days, and for some reason caught on with his obvious or wrong ideas.

His latest “alertbox” (apologies for linking to such a horrible looking site) says that users are so completely dumb and clumsy that they can’t type passwords in correct, and that masking is a bad idea. Wow. I’ve never mentioned or linked to Jakob Nielsen on this blog before, but I feel a duty to contribute what meager link juice I have to making this astonishing bit of advice the highest ranked page on that site. What would cause someone to suggest that this first layer of security is a detriment?

More importantly, there’s usually nobody looking over your shoulder when you log in to a website. It’s just you, sitting all alone in your office, suffering reduced usability to protect against a non-issue.

Really? My apologies Mr. Nielsen. All these years I thought your ideas were bad because you just made stuff up and wanted to sound like you knew what you were talking about. Little did I know that your lack of clue regarding how people use computers is the result of the fact that you don’t work with actual people. You should do one of your infamous studies (preferably of indeterminate size and method, as usual) and see if people log in to websites from exotic venues like the “train station” or maybe even a “meeting”.


Usernames for most websites are based on UNIX conventions/standards. They are lowercase, usually begin with letters, and have no whitespace. Many sites offer a “display name” which is more flexible.

While discussing requirements for a new project, my first inclination was to do something similar, simply because “that’s how it’s done”, but someone suggested this method might be antiquated. After giving it a few days of thought, I tend to agree. “Old” user domains like AOL, Windows, and Slashdot have logins that have allowed spaces for years, yet most of even the latest, shiniest Web 2.0 sites go back to the 1970s for their guidelines.

We’ve even taken it a little further and not only can users use spaces, underscores, and dashes, these characters are ignored for purposes of uniqueness, because I’m guessing people’s brains will tend to stem these characters when it comes to memorizing them. So “Eric Savage” and “ericsavage” and “Eric_Savage” and even something like “Eri__c-SAVA g-_E” would all be the same.

When appearing in a URL or other machine-readable context, these characters are all changed to underscore and consecutive duplicates are eliminated, so the previous username would be “eric_savage”. Also, leading and trailing non-alphanumerics are stripped, otherwise we’d likely find users all naming themselves __alphadog so they appear first alphabetically. We could expand the list of which extra characters are allowed, but we’ll start off easy.


    Can anyone think of good reasons for why you should stick to UNIX-style usernames?
  • Should users on a community site be able to change usernames? [I’m currently in the “no” camp]
  • If changeable, should the change history be public?
  • Most people like short usernames, some people prefer long ones. What do you think should be the limit? [I’m currently thinking 20]
  • Is a short limit too ethnocentric?

PuTTY: Custom Icons

PuTTY is the most popular free SSH client for Windows. It’s very stable and very lightweight, due to the developers keeping bloat out of the source. One piece of bloat that I would like to see is the ability to pick icons, which I find very valuable when working on multiple servers, a common task for most developers. Luckily it’s pretty easy to roll your own PuTTY, so I figured I would offer a little how-to here.

  1. Download and install Cygwin. I’m not sure which packages you need, as I typically just install everything.
  2. Download putty source code from here:
  3. Open cygwin shell
  4. cygwin: mkdir putty
  5. cygwin: cd putty
  6. cygwin: unzip [wherever download is]/
  8. Now put your icon (.ico) file in WINDOWS and name it PUTTY.ICO
  9. cygwin: cd WINDOWS
  10. cygwin: make -f MAKEFILE.CYG putty.exe
  11. You should now havea nice fresh putty.exe file in the WINDOWS directory, copy this wherever you wish.
  12. Copy the next icon to PUTTY.ICO and re-run make. Repeat until you have one executable per server.

Voting Obsecurity

December 26, 2006

The Honorable George W. Bush
President of the United States
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

Dear Mr. President,

I hope the holidays find you well, and wish you happy and productive new year.

I am not an expert on the topic of voting, nor am I a professional security expert, but I do try and follow the news with regards to the intersection of the two. I watched the HBO documentary “Hacking Democracy” this weekend while wrapping presents, and was flat-out disgusted. It was not especially well-made, made no attempt at being objective, nor was most of its information news to me, but I was moved when I watched a mock election be rigged using actual voting systems and saw a real, respected election official be speechless and dumbfounded that his job was completely undermined.

There is no simple solution to secure voting, nor is it remotely probable that any election will ever be 100.0% honest, but there are some monumentally obvious flaws in the way we currently count votes. The largest is the issue of the lack of openness of the software, systems, and processes that are involved.

I am a software developer and most non-programmers I’ve talked to have a difficult time understanding the idea that public access to the “secret codes” of software, AKA the source code, is more secure than private or closed source code. The general opinion is that if you can see the inner workings of something, it’s easier to break it, which is valid and true. The next step in this thought process, however, is more critical and is one that most people don’t take. That is that if you cannot see the inner workings of something that is broken, it’s more difficult to fix it.

The idea of “security by obscurity”, sometimes referred to as “obsecurity”, is valid and necessary when it comes to information such as private financial data, personal information like medical histories, and intelligence gathered by our military and other government agencies. However, regarding mechanisms and processes, such as software, obscurity lessens security. This is doubly true when those mechanisms are designed to collect and analyze public data, such as votes.

Here’s a dirty secret of the programming craft: 99.9999% of software is broken. By broken I mean there is some bug somewhere in it. In new or rarely used software these bugs can be serious and misleading. In most mature software, it’s nothing serious; something doesn’t display right, some obscure error condition is handled poorly, etc. This applies to video games, email programs, ATM software, Windows, Linux, etc. as well as voting software.

So how do you weed out these bugs? You test, over and over and over again. When you find a bug, you test again, even things that you didn’t fix (AKA regression testing). Eventually, you’ve fixed all or most of the bugs that were found, satisfied your unit tests and requirements, and you ship it. Then your customer does something you never planned on, maybe because they are being silly or stupid, or you aren’t the programming god you thought you were, or your QA staff is overworked, or it just wasn’t possible for you to test in the lab. This is why you get Windows updates every week, and why there are dozens of bug fixes for every Linux kernel, patches for every video game, it’s simply unavoidable. The more something is used, the more bugs are found, and the better it becomes.

Voting software isn’t used very much. Most machines are used one day every year or two. Excel has been used by millions of people every day for nearly 20 years, and there are still bugs in it. If I’m making an inventory of my baseball cards and have a problem with Excel I can report it to Microsoft and hopefully a ticket will be opened and hopefully they will fix it. The difference between a spreadsheet package and a voting system is that my grandfathers didn’t risk their lives overseas to make sure “=SUM(D3:D13)” was accurate, they did it so that I would grow up in a better world than they did, and just as importantly, have the power to make it better for my grandkids.

It is absolutely imperative that we apply the highest possible standards of scrutiny, security, and integrity to the systems that facilitate our most sacred public right. Voting software, hardware, and system should not only be open, they should be the zenith of openness. The public should be able to download complete specifications for every piece of hardware on every type of voting machine out there, from the device I vote on to the system that tabulates it to the printers that make the reports. We should have access to every line of code used in the entire process. I should be able to test it myself and find flaws or solicit advice from those I trust. The public should have as much access to the hardware as is feasible. Regular citizens, universities and vendors should be encouraged with bounties to find and report flaws they find. Defect reports on voting systems should be legal documents, also open to review by all. There should be digitally signed video publicly viewable via live broadcast or within hours of all access to every machine with the sole exception of the person casting a ballot. There is room for only ONE secret in this entire process, and that is who an individual voted for.

I would be exceptionally pleased if you would propose or support legislation to help protect our votes by virtue of an open and honest process. It would not only validate the sacrifices millions of Americans have already made, but it would set an example that other democracies and future generations will aspire to.


Eric F. Savage

Also sent to my Senators Kennedy and Kerry, Representative Frank, Governor-Elect Patrick, State Senators Brown and Creem and Secretary of the Commonwealth Galvin. If you feel similarly I encourage you do write to your officials and feel free to borrow or copy from my letter.

For more, better information on this topic I recommend checking out Ben Adida’s Blog and Black Box Voting. A web search for ‘secure voting’ or similar topics will also turn up piles of other opinions and (often scary) facts.