Fighting the Disorder of Magnitude

Most security breaches involve internal parties performing technically authorized acts.

We amateur astronomers have a particular fondness for the phrase "order of magnitude." For us, merely agreeing on the number of digits in a number is often a major step toward consensus. I bristled, therefore, when the president of Reactive Network Solutions abused this meaningful and valuable expression.

Discussing DDoS (distributed-denial-of-service) attacks, Reactives Edward Komissarchik bewailed lack of concern with the problem that gives him something to sell. "I dont understand how people can sleep well at night without bad dreams," he said at the RSA Conference last month. "The threat of DDoS is an entire order of magnitude higher than our capacity."

Komissarchik doesnt appear to realize that most of us are being awakened by bad dreams several nights a week. Or perhaps hes aware of our nightmares but doesnt actually care unless theyre triggered by a DDoS attack.

We have bad dreams about technology providers abandoning products. For users of Metricoms Ricochet wireless access network, bankrupted last summer, being returned to lower wireless speed or tethered to a desktop again must surely feel like a bad dream that lasts all day. For users of Solaris on X86 machines, Suns January flirtation with "who cares about the customers?" as a marketing plan must have produced more than a few grumpy mornings.

We lose sleep, not over random attacks by unknown vandals, but over the chance that a laid-off employee will leave a logic bomb behind as a farewell gift.

We lie awake reminding ourselves that most security breaches involve internal parties performing technically authorized acts.

As for "an entire order of magnitude"—well, thats ridiculous. If everyone capable of mounting a DDoS attack were to do so, the mess would overwhelm us by more like four or five orders of magnitude—that is, a factor of 10,000 to 100,000. Except that the entire Net would be down, so nothing fun would happen, and the problem would heal itself.

This scenario is unlike any of the problems that actually trouble our sleep, which simple equilibrium processes—and even market forces—seem sadly unable to remedy.

Tell me what keeps you awake at night. Write to me at [email protected]