Everything Is Broken

Software is so bad because it’s so complex, and because it’s trying to talk to other programs on the same computer, or over connections to other computers. Even your computer is kind of more than one computer, boxes within boxes, and each one of those computers is full of little programs trying to coordinate their actions and talk to each other. Computers have gotten incredibly complex, while people have remained the same gray mud with pretensions of godhood.

Your average piece-of-shit Windows desktop is so complex that no one person on Earth really knows what all of it is doing, or how.

Now imagine billions of little unknowable boxes within boxes constantly trying to talk and coordinate tasks at around the same time, sharing bits of data and passing commands around from the smallest little program to something huge, like a browser — that’s the internet. All of that has to happen nearly simultaneously and smoothly, or you throw a hissy fit because the shopping cart forgot about your movie tickets.

We often point out that the phone you mostly play casual games on and keep dropping in the toilet at bars is more powerful than all the computing we used to go to space for decades.

NASA had a huge staff of geniuses to understand and care for their software. Your phone has you.

Plus a system of automatic updates you keep putting off because you’re in the middle of Candy Crush Saga every time it asks.

Because of all this, security is terrible. Besides being riddled with annoying bugs and impossible dialogs, programs often have a special kind of hackable flaw called 0days by the security scene. No one can protect themselves from 0days. It’s their defining feature — 0 is the number of days you’ve had to deal with this form of attack. There are meh, not-so-terrible 0days, there are very bad 0days, and there are catastrophic 0days that hand the keys to the house to whomever strolls by. I promise that right now you are reading this on a device with all three types of 0days. “But, Quinn,” I can hear you say, “If no one knows about them how do you know I have them?” Because even okay software has to work with terrible software. The number of people whose job it is to make software secure can practically fit in a large bar, and I’ve watched them drink. It’s not comforting. It isn’t a matter of if you get owned, only a matter of when.

Look at it this way — every time you get a security update (seems almost daily on my Linux box), whatever is getting updated has been broken, lying there vulnerable, for who-knows-how-long. Sometimes days, sometimes years. Nobody really advertises that part of updates. People say “You should apply this, it’s a critical patch!” and leave off the “…because the developers fucked up so badly your children’s identities are probably being sold to the Estonian Mafia by smack addicted script kiddies right now.”

The really bad bugs (and who knows which ones those are when they click the “Restart Later” button?) can get swept up by hackers, governments, and other horrors of the net that are scanning for versions of software they know they can exploit. Any computer that shows up in a scan saying “Hey! Me! I’m vulnerable!” can become part of a botnet, along with thousands, or hundreds of thousands of other computers. Often zombied computers get owned again and become part of yet another botnet. Some botnets patch computers to throw out the other botnets so they don’t have to share you with other hackers. How can you tell if this is happening? You can’t! Have fun wondering if you’re getting your online life rented out by the hour!

Next time you think your grandma is uncool, give her credit for her time helping dangerous Russian criminals extort money from offshore casinos with DDoS attacks.

Recently an anonymous hacker wrote a script that took over embedded Linux devices. These owned computers scanned the whole rest of the internet and created a survey that told us more than we’d ever known about the shape of the internet. The little hacked boxes reported their data back (a full 10 TBs) and quietly deactivated the hack. It was a sweet and useful example of someone who hacked the planet to shit. If that malware had actually been malicious, we would have been so fucked.

This is because all computers are reliably this bad: the ones in hospitals and governments and banks, the ones in your phone, the ones that control light switches and smart meters and air traffic control systems. Industrial computers that maintain infrastructure and manufacturing are even worse. I don’t know all the details, but those who do are the most alcoholic and nihilistic people in computer security. Another friend of mine accidentally shut down a factory with a malformed ping at the beginning of a pen test. For those of you who don’t know, a ping is just about the smallest request you can send to another computer on the network. It took them a day to turn everything back on.

Computer experts like to pretend they use a whole different, more awesome class of software that they understand, that is made of shiny mathematical perfection and whose interfaces happen to have been shat out of the business end of a choleric donkey. This is a lie. The main form of security this offers is through obscurity — so few people can use this software that there’s no point in building tools to attack it. Unless, like the NSA, you want to take over sysadmins.A well written encrypted chat, what could go wrong?

Let’s take an example computer experts like to stare down their noses at normal people for not using: OTR. OTR, or Off The Record messaging, sneaks a layer of encryption inside normal plain text instant messaging. It’s like you got on AIM or Jabber or whatever and talked in code, except the computer is making the code for you. OTR is clever and solid, it’s been examined carefully, and we’re fairly sure it hasn’t got any of those nasty 0days.

Except, OTR isn’t a program you use, as such.

There is a standard for OTR software, and a library, but it doesn’t do anything on its own. It gets implemented in software for normal human shlubs to use by other normal human shlubs. By now, you know this ends in tears.

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