Black Hat panel: Which do you trust less with your data, the U.S. government or Google?

Security veterans Jeff Moss, Bruce Schneier, Marcus Ranum and others duke it out

LAS VEGAS -- To celebrate the 15th anniversary of the Black Hat Conference here, a panel of experts got together to expound on what they see as the privacy and security mess of our times, and they had plenty to say about the U.S. government, cyberwar and Google.

"The government really sucks at handling classified data," opined Marcus Ranum (pictured above, far right), CSO at Tenable Security. He said the vast WikiLeaks dumps of sensitive data from the U.S. government seen over the past few years shows that agencies such as the Department of State need to improve "data custodianship."

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As the panelists veered into the topic of who would you trust less with your data, the U.S. government or Google, ICANN CSO Jeff Moss (pictured above, far left) answered that he feared Google more than the feds. That got Ranum to quip: that's because "Google has a history of getting things done."

And it so it went as the others on the panel -- Bruce Schneier (pictured above, second from right), chief security technologist at BT; Adam Shostack (pictured above, second from left), senior program manager at Microsoft's Trustworthy Computing Group; and Jennifer Granick (pictured above, center), director of civil liberties at the Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Society, who acted as moderator -- all got their digs in, too.

"I don't trust sending my data across the border because the NSA is going to grab it," said Schneier (read our review of his new book).

The panelists noted the era of the "advanced persistent threat" (APT), targeted attacks by governments or industrial spies to steal critical information, is upon us, with company after company being hit and critical information stolen. APTs against companies mean "absolute security matters," said Schneier, which he added, "is freakin' hard. We are terrible as an industry dealing with the targeted attacker."

 The buying and selling of software and hardware vulnerabilities is now a big business, pointed out Ranum. He said he wouldn't be surprised if young people going into the high-tech industry ended up getting lured by thoughts or promises of money into putting vulnerabilities into products just to be able to sell knowledge about such weaknesses. Schneier said "there's serious money in vulnerabilities," noting that you can sell them to the U.S. government now.

The situation with distributed denial of service (DDoS) is also serious today, with known DDoS attacks now hitting 123Gbps, said Moss. "We've entered a realm where it's impossible to defend yourself against DDoS floods that large."

The number of known data breaches just keeps piling up over the years, but consumers that have had their personally identifiable information lost or stolen are finding that lawsuits aren't generally effective, Granick pointed out. She also said that the law expects to see a "standard of care of a reasonable person," but there there's little formal consensus on that in computer security and among security experts, who often leave people mystified by what they're talking about.

The panel turned a bit argumentative when it came to discussing Stuxnet and Flame, now believed to be cyber-weapons created by the U.S. with Israel, with President Obama secretly ordering an attack on an Iranian facility suspected of trying to develop nuclear weapons.

Moss said the cyberattack can be seen as a better military alternative to blowing things up and killing people. But Ranum indicated he didn’t buy that argument, that it’s still an attack, whether it happens against the DoD or Iran. These attacks still involve going through "civilian infrastructure" it was pointed out, and Granick even called it "a crime against humanity."

On the question of whether security will be better or worse in the future, Moss said, "We'll get better at running," and at that Schneier responded, "The bad guys will always run faster."  

Ellen Messmer is senior editor at Network World, an IDG publication and website, where she covers news and technology trends related to information security. Twitter: MessmerE. Email: emessmer@nww.com.

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