Security Not in the Cards

By Peter Coffee  |  Posted 2001-10-22 Print this article Print

If your only tool is a hammer, it's often said, all problems look like nails. What, then, does the world look like to someone who owns a hammer factory?

If your only tool is a hammer, its often said, all problems look like nails. What, then, does the world look like to someone who owns a hammer factory?

Oracles Larry Ellison and Suns Scott McNealy each propose to define terrorist threats in terms of nails that their products can pound down. "We need a national ID card with our photograph and thumbprint,"said Ellison on Sept. 22—adding (no surprise here), "We need a database behind that." Hes offered to donate the software. I dont accuse him of profiteering; Im sure hes quite sincere. But wrong.

Suns McNealy also wants a national identity system, though his vision is (still less surprising) based on the distributed intelligence of smart devices using Java to execute authentication algorithms. "If you get on a plane," McNealy said on Oct. 11, "I want to know who you are."

Does McNealy see the contradiction between his position on ID cards and his position on executable Internet content? He disparages Microsofts case for cryptographically signed ActiveX controls, but Microsofts position equates to McNealys and Ellisons contention that identification is safety. Both are wrong.

Digital signatures for downloaded code tell you only, after the fact, whom you can sue for the damage that was done when the code turns out to be malignant—like finding a passport in the rubble.

Java proponents have always praised its far more finely grained approach of granting only specific privileges: If you want to tell a Java program that its allowed to open only files whose names begin with "Q" and only if theres an "r" in the name of the current month, you can enforce that policy.

Security isnt a matter of what you allow to get in. Its a matter of what you allow to happen and how you arrange to detect and report attempts to circumvent those limits.

National ID cards for people, like perimeter security for IT installations, are not a defense in depth—but they consume resources without providing the more genuine security that we should be achieving by other means.

Peter Coffee is Director of Platform Research at, where he serves as a liaison with the developer community to define the opportunity and clarify developers' technical requirements on the company's evolving Apex Platform. Peter previously spent 18 years with eWEEK (formerly PC Week), the national news magazine of enterprise technology practice, where he reviewed software development tools and methods and wrote regular columns on emerging technologies and professional community issues.Before he began writing full-time in 1989, Peter spent eleven years in technical and management positions at Exxon and The Aerospace Corporation, including management of the latter company's first desktop computing planning team and applied research in applications of artificial intelligence techniques. He holds an engineering degree from MIT and an MBA from Pepperdine University, he has held teaching appointments in computer science, business analytics and information systems management at Pepperdine, UCLA, and Chapman College.

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