Watchdogs on Way Out?

While much of the high-tech industry has spent the last several months focusing on security-for their information as well as their physical assets-a small but growing number of influential executives has been working toward the long-term goal of

While much of the high-tech industry has spent the last several months focusing on security—for their information as well as their physical assets—a small but growing number of influential executives has been working toward the long-term goal of making the security industry obsolete.

"The security industry as we know it today goes away in 10 years," said Chris Darby, CEO of @Stake Inc., a security consultancy and research company in Cambridge, Mass.

As things stand now, the security market is a confusing and fractured mélange of technologies with exotic-sounding names such as firewall and IDS (intrusion detection system). Vendors in every segment tout their wares as the final piece of the puzzle, the magic potion that promises to make an IT managers security headaches vanish.

They play on customers fears, telling them there are dozens, if not hundreds, of vulnerabilities in the software on which theyre running their enterprises and that the only way to keep corporate data safe is to install yet another layer of security.

However, the dirty little secret of the security industry is that if the big software vendors paid more attention to security, security hardware and software vendors would be out of business, according to experts.

And thats exactly the scenario that companies such as @Stake, Microsoft Corp. and others are trying to bring about.

Microsoft has long been a favorite target of crackers, much to the displeasure of customers that have been burned by vulnerabilities in the companys broad line of software. Microsoft has been quick to issue patches when someone identifies a new flaw in one of its products, but this spring, the company launched Trustworthy Computing, an all-out effort to improve the security of its products during the design and development phase, something its critics have suggested for years.

The main focus of the effort is training developers to write secure code and eliminate common and easily exploitable vulnerabilities such as buffer overruns. @Stake, which offers secure-coding training services, has seen a lot of demand for those services in recent months.

Such training and coding practices should lead to more secure products in the short term and in the long term, to a marked decrease in the number of vulnerabilities in corporate networks, which will mean fewer successful attacks, security insiders claim.

And that, in turn, will mean less demand for security countermeasures such as firewalls and IDSes.

"In the long term, over time, as we design more-secure products, what we should see—what wed better see—is fewer successful attacks, better stability and better security," said Scott Charney, chief security strategist at Microsoft, in Redmond, Wash. "We should be able to measure and say vulnerabilities are going down. Things should improve."

But "should" is far different from "will." Many of the common vulnerabilities that crackers use to invade corporate networks and Web servers have been around for years, if not decades. Buffer overruns, for example, were identified as early as the 1960s, and yet they continue to show up in new software packages such as Windows XP.

This leads some security experts to challenge the notion that the security industry is on the verge of collapsing.

"Todays simple-to-fix vulnerabilities, like buffer overflows, will likely be gone [in 10 years]," said Steven Bellovin, AT&T fellow in the Network Services Research Lab at AT&T Labs Research, in Florham Park, N.J., and a pioneer in network security. "But more complex semantic problems will remain. Most security holes are caused by buggy code. Buggy code is the oldest problem in computer science, and I see no reason to think that will change.

"Well make progress—but its fundamentally a very hard, and possibly insoluble, problem," Bellovin said. "I also think that the right approach for systems architects is to design their systems differently. A lot more has to be done to understand what the security-sensitive modules are so that they can be made as small as possible and can be properly isolated from the rest of the system."

But in the end, @Stakes Darby said he believes that the changes being made by companies such as Microsoft are moving the industry inexorably toward a fundamental shift.

"The notion of overlaying security products on networks after the fact is inefficient," Darby said. "And technology in the long run is about efficiency."

The changes that Darby, Charney and others envision for the security industry will not happen overnight. But if they do occur, users will eventually be better off, experts say. "I think that Microsoft will apply a lot of effort to fix their security problems because it seems that they have been ridiculed to the point that they have finally decided to get right with God," said Phil Zimmermann, chief cryptographer at Hush Communications Corp., based in Dublin, Ireland, and inventor of the PGP e-mail encryption program. "I think Linux, FreeBSD and Apple [Computer Inc.] will try to reach parity with OpenBSD in security discipline. These changes will take years but will eventually bear fruit. Firewalls and IDS as add-on products will become less needed."