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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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Comments Filter:
  • by Bearhouse ( 1034238 ) on Monday January 21, 2008 @04:52PM (#22130438)
    Few people (rightly so) would tolerate Boeings or Airbuses that fell out of the sky through faulty software.

    And yet, as a former coder then vendor, I always found it hard to get people to pony up for better education for programmers, analysts, project managers, or better coding tools, exhaustive testing protocols, whatever.

    Now as a consultant, I face the same struggle getting people to be serious about backups, redundancy/eliminating single points of failure...

    As long as it's not their head on the block, even senior managers will most often favour commercial expendiency over prudence. This in the face of many high-profile disasters that cost a lot more to put right than they would have done to do properly.
  • what about OSS? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by quest(answer)ion ( 894426 ) <<admin> <at> <>> on Monday January 21, 2008 @05:00PM (#22130514)
    what, a whole book review on software development, and not a single mention of open source? how did this make it onto slashdot?

    OSS cracks aside, it would be nice to see if the book talks about that side of things at all; the impression i got from the review is that there's not much distinction drawn between software licensing and development models, and that it's all sorta lumped in together.

    so if, as the book seems to suggest, software development were regulated more closely, who would be accountable, or audited, or whatever, for an OSS project with heavy community involvement that's seeing commercial applications? or with an OSS project that gets implemented as part of a for-profit piece of software?

    i'm curious, because i have less than zero experience in how this stuff actually works, but it seems like it would be a weird situation. anyone have any insight?
  • by nullchar ( 446050 ) on Monday January 21, 2008 @05:01PM (#22130532)

    The software vendors will know that their vacation from security is over.
    It would be nice if a book like this could change the software industry. But realistically, what industry will lobby their respective governments for this change? Obviously the established software companies will not advocate change. And, IMO, obviously the open-source community has little to gain with extra regulation and imposed cost on a Free and often voluntarily produced product.

    I say the market itself will solve the problems with software security. New companies or new software products will only replace existing ones if the new ones are better. And like the book mentions, "better" is often measured in features. However, if enough damage is done with the current software flaws, some of the new features will include better security.

    Example: Company A is sued by Customer B when Attacker C exploits a hole in Company A's software resulting in a financial loss for Customer B. Like the book mentions, Customer B usually has no legal grounds to sue. However, if this happens multiple times, Customer B may get wise and ensure proper contracts when entering new agreements.

    These contracts could be required by customers when dealing with both closed source and open source companies. Buying a support contract from Sun for MySQL _could_ include certain software security requirements. And if Sun does not support this service, a business opportunity exists for another company.
  • by PitaBred ( 632671 ) <> on Monday January 21, 2008 @05:29PM (#22130840) Homepage
    I take it you've never actually taken any Engineering classes. A bridge really is pretty damn complex. It requires materials knowledge, static force calculations, dynamic force calculations, as well as weathering and other concerns, not to mention consideration of failure modes, etc. You don't give yourself any room for "error", you give safety tolerances for the people driving over the bridge and to account for imperfect materials, as well as exceptional conditions (earthquake, tornado, whatever).

    Designing a serious bridge is a LOT more difficult than 90% of software projects out there. You have a base you can build on of tried and true designs, but from scratch, it's not very easy.

    I say this as someone who works with computer administration, programming and database work professionally, but got I a minor in Engineering. I know what goes into it.
  • by kebes ( 861706 ) on Monday January 21, 2008 @05:35PM (#22130890) Journal

    I've yet to see a flaw in a book steal my, or anyone elses, credit card number, or delete all my other books, have you?
    I mentioned 'books' as an example real-world object with errors, not a one-to-one mapping to software. (I'm always reticent to use analogies, since they inevitably break down so quickly.)

    There are of course meat-space analogies for identity theft and data loss arising from faulty products (locks, paper shredders, photocopiers) or services (shipping errors, clerical errors, corruption). The point is not the analogy per se... the point is that faulty products and services in the real world lead to losses (of time, money, data, personal information, etc.) and to crime. We could reduce these losses by spending more money and effort on higher quality products and services, but there reaches a point where people just don't care anymore (either because they are ignoring the risk, or because the risk is low enough that it isn't worth the additional cost).

    The same applies to software: we could make it much more robust, but is the added security worth the burden of more regulation, more overhead, and more money? In some cases, it is... but in many cases it really isn't. Software related to health, personal safety, and financial information should be regulated (in the same way that medicine and financial institutions are regulated). But over-riding laws mandating software security and software liability are not necessary. End-user education is overall more important (both to prevent real-world losses, and computer losses).
  • Re:Hm-m-m-m... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by blahplusplus ( 757119 ) on Monday January 21, 2008 @05:45PM (#22130980)
    "... Bad software costs us 180 billion dollars a year? That would be about $600 per person in the US. Per year. I call bullshit."

    I disagree. Add up all the time spent re-installing windows, cleaning PC's, deleting or countering spam, etc, etc. I think they are right on target, spam, spyware, buffer over-runs, worrying about your popular website being hacked and extorted by crime.

    A few points:

    1. Organized crime takes advantage and exploits / extorts companies (the kid who made the milliondollarhomepage was threatened with extortion).
    2. The capacity for economic espionage is quite large.
    3. Then there is 'just for kicks' aspect of causing havoc.
    4. Bad people who don't like us attack our networks/software/etc.
    5. Orwellian trojans (i.e. governments, criminals, or corporations of the world infecting your computer with rootkits, i.e. we already have one example: Sony).

    Also corporations who are criminals such as Mediadefender, which was hacked []

Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced -- even a proverb is no proverb to you till your life has illustrated it. -- John Keats