Law 1 – Attackers Will Always Find Their Way

This is the first post of a series of ten posts. The order of the ten laws is not meaningful excepted for this first one. For three reasons:

  • It is the most important law as it is never failed. It should be engraved deeply in the mind of every security practitioner.
  • It is my favorite law. In 1996, when I founded the Thomson Security Laboratories, this law allowed us to enter into the Hollywood arena. We were the first to claim it systematically in front of the MPAA members. At this time, it was not obvious. In 1998, DVD John with DeCSS illustrated its pertinence. Studios started to listen to us. A side effect of the first law is that the world will always need good security practitioners. This is a reassuring effect. J
  • If somebody claim his or her system is unbreakable, then I already know that the system is snake oil.

No secure system is infallible. Any secure system is doomed to fail. Attackers will always find a way to defeat it. Even in ancient mythologies, it was true. For instance, invulnerable heroes such as Greek Achilles or Nordic Siegfried has a vulnerable spot. Along the History, this law has been right. Invincible Roman legions were defeated. Unsinkable RMS Titanic sank. Bletchley Park decrypted German Enigma. Mobile devices are jailbroken.

The only cryptographic system that has been demonstrated to be unbreakable in theory is Shannon’s One Time Pad. Unfortunately, it is not practicable. The symmetric key must be truly random and be of the same size that the clear text. Then, you have the problem to distribute the symmetric key securely, i.e., by secure sneaker net. Not very useful for everyday usage.

There is a strong asymmetry between security defenders and attackers. The attacker needs to succeed only once whereas the defender has to succeed every time. The attacker benefits from all the security technologies and tools that the defender may use. The attacker may put a lot of effort, resources and time for the exploit, as for instance, with high-profile Advanced Persistent Attacks (APT). Nature favors the attacker. The second law of thermodynamics states that entropy tends not to decrease. It highlights that it is easier to break a system than to build it. Creating increases the order, thus reduces entropy. Whereas breaking increases the chaos thus increases entropy. This is the sad, cruel reality of security.

Security designers must never deny the first law, but rather put this heuristic at the heart of their design.

The designer must expect the attackers to push the limits.
Any design operates within a set of limits defined by its initial requirements. The system should work correctly within these boundaries and should be tested within these limits. Unfortunately, an attacker may attempt to operate outside these boundaries to get unexpected behavior. The security designer should ensure either that these limits are out of reach or at least that the system should detect the violation of these boundaries to react accordingly. Typical examples are buffer overflows and SQL injections.

Systems will have vulnerabilities.
Publishing vulnerabilities is one of the best methods to reach a safer cyber world. Not only will the solution provider close the holes but the publication of the vulnerability will also educate the designers. Obscurity is dangerous for security (We will address it with Law 3). Nevertheless, implementers must have a reasonable amount of time to fix the issue before the public disclosure of the vulnerability. This is called responsible vulnerability disclosure.

As any system will be broken, the designed system must be ready to survive by the updating of its defense mechanisms. Without renewability, the system will be definitively dead. Renewability is a mandatory security requirement. The side effect is that the hacking scene must be monitored to learn as soon as possible about breaches and vulnerabilities.

As any defense will fail, a secure system should implement multiple defenses. Medieval builders knew about it. Middle Age castles had several bulwarks to protect the keep. Each one being increasingly higher than the previous one, It should construct successive obstacles that the attacker has to cross successfully. Diversity in protection makes the exploit harder to perform. A little ranting; one the current buzz messages of some vendors is “forget about firewalls and anti-viruses, use new method X”. Perimetric defense is of course not anymore sufficient to defend against modern threats. Nevertheless, the old-fashioned tools are still necessary for in-depth defense. Would you get rid of firewalls, then your network would become the weakest point of your system and would bypass new method X.

As any system will be broken one day, data may be corrupted or lost. Regular, frequent air-gapped backup of all non-constructible data is the ultimate defense. Back-up is today the only effective answer to ransomware (if you do not have a critical issue with data needed immediately, as for instance in hospitals). Air gapped is important to protect against a new generation of ransomware encrypting remote or cloud-based servers.

As a conclusion, never ask the question “if the system would be broken, …” but rather “Whenever the system WILL be broken, …”. The work of the security practitioner is to limit the risks of a breach, to detect its occurrence, and to mitigate the impact of such breach. The following laws will help in this difficult task.

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