It is impossible to deeply understand a solution before you have the problem.
Let me give you an example that probably all my readers can relate to: Mathematics education. Do you remember first seeing the quadratic equation and wondering why you should care? Or even if you were a math nerd like me, can you understand why someone would be asking themselves that at that point?
I've read a lot of programming blogs, and if you're reading this, you probably have too. So let me tell you up-front this is not your usual security rant that boils down to "just try harder!" Let's talk about smart, experienced programmers who are trying to write secure code, even if they are not security "experts" per se. This is an important set of people, because there is more security-related software in the world to write than can be written by security experts.
In a perfect world, setting that as the target audience would conclude this essay. As your browser's scrollbar shows in the full view, this essay continues on for quite a while. Alas, decades of experience and a trained reasonably high intelligence are not sufficient to write secure software in the current coding environment.
That's also the highest amount of qualifications that can be feasibly brought to bear at any reasonable scale, so in practice that's equivalent to saying it's impossible to write secure software in the current coding environment.
Let's talk about why it's so hard. My thesis is simple:
We write insecure software because our coding environment makes it easier to write insecure software than secure software.
But exploring what it fully means can lead some surprising places. Please join me on a journey as I try to show you why that is not trivially true, but in fact, profoundly true. We do not occasionally pick up insecure tools, like a broken encryption routine or misusing a web framework; we are fish swimming in an ocean of insecurity, oblivious to how steeped in it we are.
I thought I'd use Prime Music to explore some classical I hadn't gotten around to yet. You know... Mozart, some stuff by Beethoven I haven't heard yet, Bach, MC Hammer... you know, the classics.
Only a poor student of history could fail to notice history's cycles. The future can't be fortold in detail, but asking the question "Where are the cycles taking us?" gives you a better chance of guessing general shapes than anything else I know.
So it's easy for a student of history to look out at the United States and guess that we're approaching a libertine peak, and that over the next couple of decades we should expect to see the pendulum swing away from the wild excesses of the Baby Boomers back in a more "conservative" direction.
But at my age, I've never lived through a shift. So had I guessed how the counter-libertine shift would occur last week, I would have guessed a gradual cultural waning of the libertines and a gradual cultural waxing of those of a more conservative bent, with the advocates not changing their own views but their relative influence changing over time.
The debate about the reproducibility of science bubbles onward, with everyone agreeing that it's a problem but of course nobody with power to fix it doing anything about it.
Recently I've been thinking that science as we know it sits in a very unpleasant middle ground.
On the one hand, despite the propaganda institutional science is biased against replication. This holes it below the waterline, and any serious scientist (alas) must consider fixing this in their field their top priority or they are consenting to just spin their wheels forever. We do not work formally enough to produce good results, because merely reaching "Peer Approved Once" and getting published is provably not a solid foundation to build on.
If one is inclined to take offense to that, consider the fact that scientists are supposed to be building on the work of others. It's very simple math to see that even if a uniformly-distributed 95% of the papers published are perfectly correct, that 5% has a disproportional impact on the accuracy of a tower of knowledge; as the tower grows, the chances of any particular new result containing a false result in the set of results it is building on approaches 1 quickly.
Many scientific disciplines would be lucky to have a 95% accuracy rate.
On the other hand, scientists are also not allowed to just "fool around", by virtue of not being able to get funding for it. Even simple experiments must be submitted, approved, funded, etc, all involving processes a great deal more complicated than the simple little English words imply. As a second-order effect it becomes a waste of time to go through the process for a small experiment, making the small experiments even less likely to be conducted than you would initially think. And yet, historically, a lot of great stuff happened from very skilled, knowledgeable scientists just fooling around. In only a few fields can a scientist afford to fool around on their own time and money, mostly the mathematical ones.
The system both crushes away the rigor we're promised in the brochure, and also crushes away any chance of serendipity or discovery on the cheap. The miracle is when we get any science at all.
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