10 security technologies destined for the dustbin

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

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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.

That isn’t to say we shouldn’t applaud antivirus vendors. They've done a tremendous job against astronomical odds. I can't think of any sector that has had to adjust to the kinds of overwhelming progressive numbers and advances in technology since the late 1980s, when there were only a few dozen viruses to detect.

But what will really kill antivirus scanners isn't this glut of malware. It's whitelisting. Right now the average computer will run any program you install. That's why malware is everywhere. But computer and operating system manufacturers are beginning to reset the "run anything" paradigm for the safety of their customers -- a movement that is antithetical to antivirus programs, which allow everything to run unimpeded except for programs that contain one of the more than 500 million known antivirus signatures. “Run by default, block by exception” is giving way to “block by default, allow by exception.”

Of course, computers have long had whitelisting programs, aka application control programs. I reviewed some of the more popular products back in 2009. The problem: Most people don't use whitelisting, even when it’s built in. The biggest roadblock? The fear of what users will do if they can't install everything they want willy-nilly or the big management headache of having to approve every program that can be run on a user’s system.

But malware and hackers are getting more pervasive and worse, and vendors are responding by enabling whitelisting by default. Apple's OS X introduced a near version of default whitelisting three years ago with Gatekeeper. iOS devices have had near-whitelisting for much longer in that they can run only approved applications from the App Store (unless the device is jailbroken). Some malicious programs have slipped by Apple, but the process has been incredibly successful at stopping the huge influx that normally follows popular OSes and programs.

Microsoft has long had a similar mechanism, through Software Restriction Policies and AppLocker, but an even stronger push is coming in Windows 10 with DeviceGuard. Microsoft’s Windows Store also offers the same protections as Apple's App Store. While Microsoft won't be enabling DeviceGuard or Windows Store-only applications by default, the features are there and are easier to use than before.

Once whitelisting becomes the default on most popular operating systems, it's game over for malware and, subsequently, for antivirus scanners. I can't say I'll miss either.

Doomed security technology No. 7: Antispam filters

Spam still makes up more than half of the Internet's email. You might not notice this anymore, thanks to antispam filters, which have reached levels of accuracy that antivirus vendors can only claim to deliver. Yet spammers keep spitting out billions of unwanted messages each day. In the end, only two things will ever stop them: universal, pervasive, high-assurance authentication and more cohesive international laws.

Spammers still exist mainly because we can't easily catch them. But as the Internet matures, pervasive anonymity will be replaced by pervasive high-assurance identities. At that point, when someone sends you a message claiming to have a bag of money to mail you, you will be assured they are who they say they are.

High-assurance identities can only be established when all users are required to adopt two-factor (or higher) authentication to verify their identity, followed by identity-assured computers and networks. Every cog in between the sender and the receiver will have a higher level of reliability. Part of that reliability will be provided by pervasive HTTPS (discussed above), but it will ultimately require additional mechanisms at every stage of authentication to assure that when I say I'm someone, I really am that someone.

Today, almost anyone can claim to be anyone else, and there's no universal way to verify that person's claim. This will change. Almost every other critical infrastructure we rely on -- transportation, power, and so on -- requires this assurance. The Internet may be the Wild West right now, but the increasingly essential nature of the Internet as infrastructure virtually ensures that it will eventually move in the direction of identity assurance.

Meanwhile, the international border problem that permeates nearly every online-criminal prosecution is likely to be resolved in the near future. Right now, many major countries do not accept evidence or warrants issued by other countries, which makes arresting spammers (and other malicious actors) nearly impossible. You can collect all the evidence you like, but if the attacker’s home country won't enforce the warrant, your case is toast.

As the Internet matures, however, countries that don't help ferret out the Internet's biggest criminals will be penalized. They may be placed on a blacklist. In fact, some already are. For example, many companies and websites reject all traffic originating from China, whether it's legitimate or not. Once we can identify criminals and their home countries beyond repudiation, as outlined above, those home countries will be forced to respond or suffer penalties.

The heyday of the spammers where most of their crap reached your inbox is already over. Pervasive identities and international law changes will close the coffin lid on spam -- and the security tech necessary to combat it.

Doomed security technology No. 8: Anti-DoS protections

Thankfully, the same pervasive identity protections mentioned above will be the death knell for denial-of-service (DoS) attacks and the technologies that have arisen to quell them.

These days, anyone can launch free Internet tools to overwhelm websites with billions of packets. Most operating systems have built-in anti-DoS attack protections, and more than a dozen vendors can protect your websites even when being hit by extraordinary amounts of bogus traffic. But the loss of pervasive anonymity will stop all malicious senders of DoS traffic. Once we can identify them, we can arrest them.

Think of it this way: Back in the 1920s there were a lot of rich and famous bank robbers. Banks finally beefed up their protection, and cops got better at identifying and arresting them. Robbers still hit banks, but they rarely get rich, and they almost always get caught, especially when they persist in robbing more banks. The same will happen to DoS senders. As soon as we can quickly identify them, the sooner they will disappear as the bothersome elements of society that they are.

Doomed security technology No. 9: Huge event logs

Computer security event monitoring and alerting is difficult. Every computer is easily capable of generating tens of thousands of events on its own each day. Collect them to a centralized logging database and pretty soon you're talking petabytes of needed storage. Today's event log management systems are often lauded for the vast size of their disk storage arrays.

The only problem: This sort of event logging doesn't work. When nearly every collected event packet is worthless and goes unread, and the cumulative effect of all the worthless unread events is a huge storage cost, something has to give. Soon enough admins will require application and operating system vendors to give them more signal and less noise, by passing along useful events without the mundane log clutter. In other words, event log vendors will soon be bragging about how little space they take rather than how much.

Doomed security technology No. 10: Anonymity tools (not to mention anonymity and privacy)

Lastly, any mistaken vestige of anonymity and privacy will be completely wiped away. We already really don't have it. The best book I can recommend on the subject is Bruce Schneier's "Data and Goliath." A quick read will scare you to death if you didn't already realize how little privacy and anonymity you truly have.

Even hackers who think that hiding on Tor and other "darknets" give them some semblance of anonymity must understand how quickly the cops are arresting people doing bad things on those networks. Anonymous kingpin after anonymous kingpin ends up being arrested, identified in court, and serving real jail sentences with real jail numbers attached to their real identity.

The truth is, anonymity tools don't work. Many companies, and certainly law enforcement, already know who you are. The only difference is that, in the future, everyone will know the score and stop pretending they are staying hidden and anonymous online.

I would love for a consumer's bill of rights guaranteeing privacy to be created and passed, but past experience teaches me that too many citizens are more than willing to give up their right to privacy in return for supposed protection. How do I know? Because it's already the standard everywhere but the Internet. You can bet the Internet is next.

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This story, "10 security technologies destined for the dustbin" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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