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Geekonomics 227

Ben Rothke writes "First the good news — in a fascinating and timely new book Geekonomics: The Real Cost of Insecure Software, David Rice clearly and systematically shows how insecure software is a problem of epic proportions, both from an economic and safety perspective. Currently, software buyers have very little protection against insecure software and often the only recourse they have is the replacement cost of the media. For too long, software manufactures have hidden behind a virtual shield that protects them from any sort of liability, accountability or responsibility. Geekonomics attempts to stop them and can be deemed the software equivalent of Unsafe at Any Speed. That tome warned us against driving unsafe automobiles; Geekonomics does the same for insecure software." Read on for Ben's take on this book.
Geekonomics: The Real Cost of Insecure Software
author David Rice
pages 362
publisher Addison-Wesley
rating 9
reviewer Ben Rothke
ISBN 978-0321477897
summary How insecure software costs money and lives
Now the bad news — we live in a society that tolerates 20,000 annual alcohol-related fatalities (40% of total traffic fatalities) and cares more about Brittany Spears' antics than the national diabetes epidemic. Expecting the general public or politicians to somehow get concerned about abstract software concepts such as command injection, path manipulation, race conditions, coding errors, and myriad other software security errors, is somewhat of a pipe dream.

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 Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.
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  • by jorghis ( 1000092 ) on Monday January 21, 2008 @04:43PM (#22130382)
    Software written for most industries where human lives could conceivably be on the line IS under the watchful eyes of regulators. As an example, if you are going to write software that goes into an airplane you can expect to have your work audited by the FAA. Similar circumstances exist for most other industries where a software failure could cause loss of human life or similar catastrophes.
  • Well, excuuuse me... (Score:5, Informative)

    by Chemisor ( 97276 ) on Monday January 21, 2008 @04:59PM (#22130498)
    Companies don't spend much time on security because features are what the customers want. If you want security and unlimited liability, by all means ask for it. Of course, it will cost you extra, due to the need for security audits and the outrageous cost of liability insurance, but you can certainly get it. If you pass a law to require perfect security and liability, the cost of software will rise even higher than it is today. Take your pick.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 21, 2008 @05:19PM (#22130724)

    237 words, 1.27% error rate. Pretty good for a coder.
  • by davidwr ( 791652 ) on Monday January 21, 2008 @05:20PM (#22130736) Homepage Journal
    In general, computer software for mission-critical devices would be regulated by the same agency that regulates the accompanying hardware.

    Think FDA, FAA, NRC, etc.

    Now, systems that are nominally non-critical but which in fact are used as infrastructure may be unregulated and subject to the very problems described in the book.

    For example, most smart cell phones aren't engineered for untra-security. If I am a terrorist and I know ACME Electric Company uses the Plinko 100(TM) cell phone to communicate with its field operators, I can hire some cyber-criminals to schedule an attack on their phones at the same time as I set off a few bombs that take out a few major transmission lines.

    If ACME realized its phones were mission critical and used a hardened or at least fault-tolerant communications infrastructure, it would be a lot harder for me to knock out their communications when they need it most.

    The problem isn't insecure computers per se. The problem is relying on them without understanding the risks and the consequences of failure.
  • by Helevius ( 456392 ) on Monday January 21, 2008 @06:03PM (#22131204) Homepage
    This review mentions Mr. Rice's opinions on open source:

    Geekonomics reviewed by Richard Bejtlich []:

    As far as open source goes (ch 6), the author makes several statements which show he does not understand the open source world. First, on p 247 the author states "While a binary is easy for a computer to read, it is tremendously difficult for a person -- even the original developer -- to understand." This is absolutely false, and the misunderstandings continue in the same paragraph. Reverse engineering techniques can determine how binaries operate, even to the point that organizations like the Zeroday Emergency Response Team (ZERT) provide patches for Microsoft vulnerabilities without having access to source code!

    Second, on p 248 the author states "The essence of open source software is the exact opposite of proprietary software. Open source software is largely an innovation after-the-fact; that is, open source software builds upon an idea already in the marketplace that can be easily replicated or copied." On what planet?

    Third, on p 263 the author states "[O]pen source projects are almost always threatened by foreclosure," meaning if the developer loses interest the users are doomed. That claim totally misses the power of open source. When a proprietary software vendor stops coding a product, the customers are out of luck. When an open source software developer stops coding a product, the customers are NOT out of luck. They can 1) hope someone else continues the project; 2) try continuing the project themselves; or 3) hire someone else to continue developing the product. Finally, if the author is worried about open source projects not having an organization upon which liability could be enforced, he should consider the many vendors who sell open source software.

    David Rice responds on his blog [].

Can anyone remember when the times were not hard, and money not scarce?