Many current computer systems have a very poor level of computer security. This computer insecurity article describes the current battlefield of computer security exploits and defenses. Please see the computer security article for an alternative approach, based on security engineering principles.
Security and systems design
Most current real-world computer security efforts focus on external threats, and generally treat the computer system itself as a trusted system. Some knowledgeable observers consider this to be a disastrous mistake, and point out that this distinction is the cause of much of the insecurity of current computer systems – once an attacker has subverted one part of a system without fine-grained security, he or she usually has access to most or all of the features of that system. Because computer systems are very complex, and cannot be guaranteed to be free of defects, this security stance tends to produce insecure systems.
The ‘trusted systems’ approach has been predominant in the design of many Microsoft software products, due to the long-standing Microsoft policy of emphasizing functionality and ‘ease of use’ over security. Microsoft claims that this is the result of consumer choice. Since Microsoft products currently dominate the desktop and home computing markets, this has led to unfortunate effects. However, the problems described here derive from the security stance taken by software and hardware vendors generally, rather than the failing of a single vendor. Microsoft is not out of line in this respect, just far more prominent with respect to its consumer marketshare and its mistakes are more pervasive.
Severe financial damage has been caused by computer security breaches, but estimating reliable costs is quite difficult. Figures in the billions of dollars have been quoted in relation to the damage caused by malware such as computer worms like the Code Red worm, but such estimates are not likely exaggerated. However, other losses, such as those caused by the compromise of credit card information, can be more easily determined, and they have been substantial.
There are many similarities (yet many fundamental differences) between computer and physical security. Just like real-world security, the motivations for breaches of computer security vary between attackers, sometimes called hackers or crackers. Some are teenage thrill-seekers or vandals (the kind often responsible for defacing web sites); similarly, some web site defacements are done to make political statements. However, some attackers are highly skilled and motivated with the goal of compromising computers for financial gain or espionage. An example of the latter is Markus Hess who spied for the KGB and was ultimately caught because of the efforts of Clifford Stoll, who wrote an amusing and accurate book, The Cuckoo’s Egg about his experiences. For those seeking to prevent security breaches, the first step is usually to attempt to identify what might motivate an attack on the system, how much the continued operation and information security of the system are worth, and who might be motivated to breach it. The precautions required for a home PC are very different for those of banks’ Internet banking system, and different again for a classified military network. Other computer security writers suggest that, since an attacker using a network need know nothing about you or what you have on your computer, attacker motivation is inherently impossible to determine beyond guessing. If true, blocking all possible attacks is the only plausible action to take.
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