Think Carefully Before Volunteering to Be a Security Vendors Guinea Pig

Market downturn or not, the drawing power of the "cutting edge" remains a powerful force.

Market downturn or not, the drawing power of the "cutting edge" remains a powerful force. No matter what their business requirements, companies want to have the most advanced tools available. Even after the collapse of the dot-com bubble and the end of the notion of "Internet time," they continue to search for the next "killer app"—if not to revolutionize their industries, then at least to gain a competitive edge. Indeed, the IT industry continues to exist largely because of the persistent demand for new tools to sell, service and integrate into existing systems.

Anyone with IT experience knows, however, that newer is not necessarily better. Even a so-called "flawless" new technology has implementation and migration costs that easily can outweigh any benefits. An experienced security professional will go a step further; when risk management is the goal, "innovative" and "cutting edge" translate as "untried" and "untested."

Case in point: The Data Encryption Standard (DES), the basic algorithm currently used to encrypt classified U.S. government documents and most financial industry data, originally was developed in an IBM lab in 1972 and adopted by the federal government in 1977. Though designed to withstand attacks by 70s-era processors, simple DES remained the only approved mechanism for encrypting classified documents until 1993, at which point the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) approved "Triple DES," a process by which data is DES-encrypted three times in succession. Even so, Triple DES was not required for classified documents until 1999, and DES remains in use for sensitive nonclassified documents.

Faced with the need for a new algorithm that could be implemented on tiny smart-card chips and operate at very high speeds, NIST began the search for an Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) to replace DES in January 1997. NIST laid out a grueling competitive process for AES selection designed to replicate the years of attacks and scrutiny that DES had withstood; a proposed AES algorithm was selected in February and is expected to be approved this year.

Certainly, few people look to the U.S. government for examples of efficient research and development—the feds do, however, take information security extremely seriously. In this case, the apparently glacial pace was the result not of bureaucratic inefficiency, but of a healthy skepticism of novelty and respect for the value of truly exhaustive testing. Security experts have hailed the four-year-long AES competition as a model for secure development; cryptographers have given the process high marks.

Continued innovation and development with security technologies is a crucial enterprise. There is simply no other way to keep pace with expanding software functionality and feature sets on one hand and increasingly savvy attackers on the other. Similarly, creative uses of old technologies combined with experimental deployments of new ones can be extremely powerful defensive approaches, provided they are both conscientious and cautious. Conservatism should not be an excuse to limit your defensive options.

Understand, however, that the "revolutionary" new product with "breakthrough" and "proprietary" security technologies is essentially a beta release, whether the vendor acknowledges it or not. It may turn out to be the best thing since penicillin, but think carefully before volunteering to be the guinea pig.