|Geekonomics: The Real Cost of Insecure Software|
|summary||How insecure software costs money and lives|
Geekonomics is about the lack of consumer protection in the software market and how this impacts economic and national security. Author Dave Rice considers software consumers to be akin to the proverbial crash test dummy. This combined with how little recourse consumers have for software related errors, and lack of significant financial and legal liability for the vendors, creates a scenario where computer security is failing.
Most books about software security tend to be about actual coding practices. Geekonomics focuses not on the code, but rather how insecurely written software is an infrastructure problem and an economic issue. Geekonomics has 3 main themes. First — software is becoming the foundation of modern civilization. Second — software is not sufficiently engineered to fulfill the role of foundation. And third — economic, legal and regulatory incentives are needed to change the state of insecure software.
The book notes that bad software costs the US roughly $180 billion in 2007 alone (Pete Lindstrom's take on that dollar figure). Not only that, the $180 billion might be on the low-end, and the state of software security is getting worse, not better, according the Software Engineering Institute. Additional research shows that 90% of security threats exploit known flaws in software, yet the software manufacturers remain immune to almost all of the consequences in their poorly written software. Society tolerates 90% failure rates in software due to their unawareness of the problem. Also, huge amount of software problems entice attackers who attempt to take advantage of those vulnerabilities.
The books 7 chapters are systematically written and provide a compelling case for the need for security software. The book tells of how Joseph Bazalgette, chief engineer of the city of London used formal engineering practices in the mid-1800's to deal with the city's growing sewage problem. Cement was a crucial part of the project, and the book likens the development of secure software to that of cement, that can without decades of use and abuse.
One reason software has significant security vulnerabilities as noted in chapter 2, is that software manufacturers are primarily focused on features, since each additional feature (whether they have real benefit or not) offers a compelling value proposition to the buyer. But on the other side, a lack of software security functionality and controls imposes social costs on the rest of the populace.
Chapter 4 gets into the issues of oversight, standards, licensing and regulations. Other industries have lived under the watchful eyes of regulators (FAA, FDA, SEC, et al) for decades. But software is written removed from oversight by unlicensed programmers. Regulations exist primarily to guard the health, safety and welfare of the populace, in addition to the environment. Yet oversight amongst software programmers is almost nil and this lack of oversight and immunity breeds irresponsibility. The book notes that software does not have to be perfect, but it must rise to the level of quality expected of something that is the foundation of an infrastructure. And the only way to remove the irresponsibility is to remove the immunity, which lack of regulation has created a vacuum for.
Chapter 5 gets into more detail about the need to impose liability on software manufacturers. The books premise is that increased liability will lead to a decrease in software defects, will reward socially responsible software companies, and will redistribute the costs consumers have traditionally paid for protecting software from exploitation, shifting it back to the software manufacturer, where it belongs.
Since regulations and the like are likely years or decades away, chapter 7 notes that short of litigation, contracts are the best legal option software buyers can use to leverage in address software security problems. Unfortunately, most companies do not use this contractual option to the degree they should which can benefit them.
Overall, Geekonomics is an excellent book that broaches a subject left unchartered for too long. The book though does have its flaws; its analogies to physical security (bridges, cars, highways, etc.) and safety events don't always coalesce with perfect logic. Also, the trite title may diminish the seriousness of the topic. As the book illustrates, insecure software kills people, and I am not sure a corny book title conveys the importance of the topic. But the book does bring to light significant topics about the state of software, from legal liability, licensing of computer programmers, consumers rights, and more, that are imperatives.
It is clear the regulations around the software industry are inevitable and it is doubtful that Congress will do it right, whenever they eventually get around to it. Geekonomics shows the effects that such lack of oversight has caused, and how beneficial it would have been had such oversight been there in the first place.
To someone reading this review, they may get the impression that Geekonomics is a polemic against the software industry. To a degree it is, but the reality is that it is a two-way street. Software is built for people who buy certain features. To date, security has not been one of those top features. Geekonomics notes that software manufacturers have little to no incentive to build security into their products. Post Geekonomics, let's hope that will change.
Geekonomics will create different feelings amongst different readers. The consumer may be angry and frustrated. The software vendors will know that their vacation from security is over. It's finally time for them to get to work on fixing the problem that Geekonomics has so eloquently written about.
Ben Rothke is a security consultant with BT INS and the author of Computer Security: 20 Things Every Employee Should Know.
You can purchase Geekonomics: The Real Cost of Insecure Software from amazon.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.