The Confluence of SD-WAN and Microsegmentation

If you had to pick two really hot topics in the networking space right now, you’d be hard-pressed to find two more discussed than SD-WAN and microsegmentation. SD-WAN is the former “king of the hill” in the network engineering. I can remember having more conversations about SD-WAN in the last couple of years than anything else. But as the SD-WAN market has started to consolidate and iterate, a new challenger has arrived. Microsegmentation is the word of the day.

However, I think that SD-WAN and microsegmentation are quickly heading toward a merger of ideas and solutions. There are a lot of commonalities between the two technologies that make a lot of sense running together.

SD-WAN isn’t just about packet switching and routing any longer. That’s because networking people have quickly learned that packet-by-packet processing of traffic is inefficient. All of our older network analysis devices could only see things one IP packet at a time. But the new wave of devices think in terms of flows. They can analyze a stream of packets to figure out what’s going on. And what generates those flows?

Applications.

The key to the new wave of SD-WAN technology isn’t some kind of magic method of nailing up VPNs between branch offices. It’s not about adding new connectivity types. Instead, it’s about application identification. App identification is how SD-WAN does QoS now. The move to using app markers means a more holistic method of treating application traffic properly.

SD-WAN has significant value in application handling. I recently chatted with Kumar Ramachandran of CloudGenix and he echoed that part of the reason why they’ve been seeing growth and recently received a Series C funding round was because of what they’re doing with applications. The battle of MPLS versus broadband has already been fought. The value isn’t going to come from edge boxes unless there is software that can help differentiate the solutions.

Segmenting Your Traffic

So, what does this have to do with microsegmentation? If you’ve been following that market, you already know that the answer is the application. Microsegmentation doesn’t work on a packet-by-packet basis either. It needs to see all the traffic flows from an application to figure out what is needed and what isn’t. Platforms that do this kind of work are big on figuring out which protocols should be talking to which hosts and shutting everything else down to secure that communication.

Microsegmentation is growing in the cloud world for sure. I’ve seen and talked to people from companies like Guardicore, Illumio, ShieldX, and Edgewise in recent months. Each of them has a slightly different approach to doing microsegmentation. But they all look at the same basic approach form the start. The application is the basic building block of their technology.

With the growth of microsegmentation in the cloud market to help ensure traffic flows between hosts and sites is secured, it’s a no-brainer that the next big SD-WAN platform needs to add this functionality to their solution. I say this because it’s not that big of a leap to take the existing SD-WAN application analytics software that optimizes traffic flows over links and change it to restrict traffic flow with policy support.

For SD-WAN vendors, it’s another hedge against the inexorable march of traffic into the cloud. There are only so many Direct Connect analogs that you can build before Amazon decides to put you out of business. But, if you can integrate the security aspect of application analytics into your platform you can make your solution very sticky. Because that functionality is critical to meeting audit goals and ensuring compliance. And you’re going to wish you had it when the auditors come calling.


Tom’s Take

I don’t think the current generation of SD-WAN providers are quite ready to implement microsegmentation in their platforms. But I really wouldn’t be surprised to see it in the next revision of solutions. I also wonder if that means that some of the companies that have already purchased SD-WAN companies are going to look at that functionality. Perhaps it will be VMware building NSX microsegmentaiton on top of VeloCloud. Or maybe Cisco will include some of their microsegmentation from ACI in Viptela. They’re going to need to look at that strongly because once companies that are still on their own figure it out they’re going to be the go-to solution for companies looking to provide a good, secure migration path to the cloud. And all those roads lead to an SD-WAN device with microsegmentation capabilities.

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What Makes IoT A Security Risk?

IoT security is a pretty hot topic in today’s world. That’s because the increasing number of smart devices is causing issues with security professionals everywhere. Consumer IoT devices are expected to top 20 billion by 2020. And each of these smart devices represents an attack surface. Or does it?

Hello, Dave

Adding intelligence to a device increases the number of ways that it can compromised. Take a simple thermostat, for example. The most basic themostat is about as dumb as you can get. It uses the expansion properties of metal to trigger switches inside of the housing. You set a dial or a switch and it takes care of the rest. Once you start adding things like programmability or cloud connection, you increase the number of ways that you can access the device. Maybe it’s a webpage or an app. Maybe you can access it via wireless or Bluetooth. No matter how you do it, it’s more available than the simple version of the thermostat.

What about industrial IoT devices? The same rule applies. In this case, we’re often adding remote access to Supervisory Control And Data Acquistion (SCADA) systems. There’s a big market from enterprise IT providers to create secured equipment that allows access to existing industrial equipment from centralized control dashboards. It makes these devices “smart” and allows you to make them easier to manage.

Industrial IoT has the same kind of issues that consumer devices do. We’re increasing the number of access avenues to these devices. But does that mean they’re a security risk? The question could be as simple as asking if the devices are any easier to hack than their dumb counterparts. If that is our only yardstick, then the answer is most assuredly yes they are a security risk. My fridge does not have the ability for me to access it over the internet. By installing an operating system and connecting it to the wireless network in my house I’m increasing the attack surface.

Another good example of this increasing attack surface is in home devices that aren’t consumer focused. Let’s take a look at the electrical grid. Our homes are slowly being upgraded with so-called “smart” electrical meters that allow us to have more control over power usage in our homes. It also allows the electric companies to monitor the devices more closely and read the electric meters remotely instead of needing to dispatch humans to read those meters. These smart meters often operate on Wi-Fi networks for ease-of-access. If all we do is add the meters to a wireless network, are we really creating security issues?

Bigfoot-Sized Footprints

No matter how intelligent the device, increasing access avenues to the device creates security access issues. A good example of this is the “hidden” diagnostic port on the original Apple Watch. Even though the port had no real use beyond internal diagnostics at Apple, it was a tempting target for people to try and get access to the system. Sometimes these hidden ports can dump hidden data or give low-level access to areas of the system that aren’t normally available. While the Apple Watch port didn’t have this kind of access, other devices can offer it.

Giving access to any device allows you to attack it in a way that can gain you access that can get you into data that you’re not supposed to have. Sure, a smart speaker is a very simple device. But what if someone found a way to remotely access the data and capture the data stream? Or the recording buffer? Most smart speakers are monitoring audio data listening for their trigger word to take commands. Normally this data stream is dumped. But what if someone found a way to reconstruct it? Do you think that could qualify as a hack? All it takes is an enterprising person to figure out how to get low-level access. And before you say it’s impossible, remember that we allow access to these devices in other ways. It’s only a matter of time before someone finds a hole.

As for industrial machines, these are even more tempting. By gaining access to the master control systems, you can cause some pretty credible havoc with their programming. You can shut down all manner of industrial devices. Stuxnet was a great example of writing a very specific piece of malware that was designed to cause problems for a specific kind of industrial equipment. Because of the nature of the program it was very difficult to figure out exactly what was causing the issues. All it took was access to the systems, which was reportedly caused by hiding the program on USB drives and seeding them in parking lots where they would be picked up and installed in the target facilities.

IoT devices, whether consumer or enterprise, represent potential threat vectors. You can’t simply assume that a simple device is safe because there isn’t much to hack. The Mirai bonnet exploited bad password hygiene in devices to allow them to be easily hacked. It wasn’t a complicated silicon-level hack or a coordinated nation state effort. It was the result of someone cracking a hard-coded password and exploiting that for their own needs. Smart devices can be made to make dumb decisions when used improperly.


Tom’s Take

IoT security is both simple and hard at the same time. Securing these devices is a priority for your organization. You may never have the compromised, but you have to treat them just like you would any other device that could potentially be hacked and turned against you. Zero-trust security models are a great way to account for this, but you need to make sure you’re not overlooking IoT when you build that model. Because the invisible devices helping us get our daily work done could quickly become the vector for hacking attacks that bring our day to a grinding halt.

Facebook’s Mattress Problem with Privacy

If you haven’t had a chance to watch the latest episode of the Gestalt IT Rundown that I do with my co-workers every Wednesday, make sure you check this one out. Because it’s the end of the year it’s customary to do all kinds of fun wrap up stories. This episode focused on what we all thought was the biggest story of the year. For me, it was the way that Facebook completely trashed our privacy. And worse yet, I don’t see a way for this to get resolved any time soon. Because of the difference between assets and liabilities.

Contact The Asset

It’s no secret that Facebook knows a ton about us. We tell it all kinds of things every day we’re logged into the platform. We fill out our user profiles with all kinds of interesting details. We click Like buttons everywhere, including the one for the Gestalt IT Rundown. Facebook then keeps all the data somewhere.

But Facebook is collecting more data than that. They track where our mouse cursors are in the desktop when we’re logged in. They track the amount of time we spend with the mobile app open. They track information in the background. And they collect all of this secret data and they store it somewhere as well.

This data allows them to build an amazingly accurate picture of who we are. And that kind of picture is extremely valuable to the right people. At first, I thought it might be the advertisers that crave this kind of data. Advertisers are the people that want to know exactly who is watching their programs. The more data they have about demographics the better they can tailor the message. We’ve already seen that with specific kinds of targeted posts on Facebook.

But the people that really salivate over this kind of data live in the shadows. They look at the data as a way to offer new kinds of services. Don’t just sell people things. Make them think differently. Change their opinions about products or ideas without them even realizing it. The really dark and twisted stuff. Like propaganda on a whole new scale. Enabled by the fact that we have all the data we could ever want on someone without even needing to steal it from them.

The problem with Facebook collecting all this data about us is that it’s an asset. It’s not too dissimilar from an older person keeping all their money under a mattress. We scoff at that person because a mattress is a terrible place to keep money. It’s not safe. And a bank will pay you keep your money there, right?

On the flip side, depending on the age of that person, they may not believe that banks are safe. Before FDIC, there was no guarantee your money would be repaid in a pinch. And if the bank goes out of business you can’t get your investment back. For a person that lived through the Great Depression that had to endure bank holidays and the like, keeping your asset under a mattress is way safer than giving it to someone else.

As an aside here, remember that banks don’t like leaving your money laying around either. If you deposit money in a bank, they take that money and invest it in other places. They put the money to work for them making money. The interest that you get paid for savings accounts and the like is just a small bonus to encourage you to keep your money in the bank and not to pull it out. That’s why they even have big disclaimers saying that your money may not be available to withdraw at a moment’s notice. Because if you do decide to get all of your money out of the bank at once, they need to go find the money to give you.

Now, let’s examine our data. Or, at least the data that Facebook has been storing on us. How do you think Facebook looks at that data? Do you believe they want to keep it under the mattress where it’s safe from the outside world? Do you think that Facebook wants to keep all these information locked in a vault somewhere where no one can get to it?

Or perhaps Facebook looks at your data as an asset like a bank does. Instead of keeping it around and letting it sit fallow they’d rather put it to work. That’s the nature of a valuable asset. To the average person, their privacy is one of the most important parts of their lives. To Facebook, your privacy is simply an asset. It can either sit by itself and make them nothing. Or it can be put to use by Facebook or third-party companies to make more money from the things that they can do with good data sources. To believe that a company like Facebook has your best interests at heart when it comes to privacy is not a good bet to make.

Would I Lie-ability To You?

In fact, the only thing that can make Facebook really sit up and pay attention is if that asset they have farmed out and working for them were to suddenly become a liability for some reason. Liabilities are a problem for companies because they are the exact opposite of making money. They cost money. Just as the grandmother in the above example sees an insolvent bank as a liability, so too would someone see a bad asset as a possible exposure.

Liabilities are a problem. Anything that can be an exposure is an issue for company, especially one with investors that like to get dividends. Any reduction in profit equals a loss. Liabilities on a balance sheet are giant red flags for anyone taking a close look at the operations of a business.

Turning Facebook’s data assets into a liability is the only way to make them sit up and realize that what they’re doing is wrong. Selling access to our data to anyone that wants it is a horrible idea. But it won’t stop until there is some way to make them pay through he nose for screwing up. Up until this year, that was a long shot at best. Most fines were in the thousands of dollars range, whereas most companies would pay millions for access to data. A carefully crafted statement admitting no fault after the exposure was uncovered means that Facebook and the offending company get away without a black mark and get to pocket all their gains.

The European GDPR law is a great step in the right direction. It clearly spells out what has to happen to keep a person’s data safe. That eliminates wiggle room in the laws. It also puts a stiff fine in place to ensure that any violations can be compounded quickly to drain a company and turn data into a liability instead of an asset. There are moves in the US to introduce legislation similar to GDPR, either at the federal level or in individual states like California, the location of Facebook’s headquarters.

That’s not to say that these laws are going to get it right every time. There are people out there that live to find ways to turn liabilities into assets. They want to find ways around the laws and make it so that they can continue to take their assets and make money from them even if the possibility of exposure is high. It’s one thing when that exposure is the money of people that invested in them. It’s another thing entirely when it’s personally identifiable information (PII) or protected information about people. We’re not imaginary money. We live and breath and exist long past losses. And trying to get our life back on track after an exposure is not easy for sure.


Tom’s Take

If I sound grumpy, it’s because I am tired of this mess. When I was researching my discussion for the Gestalt IT Rundown I simply Googled “Facebook data breach 2018” looking for examples that weren’t Cambridge Analytica. The number was more than it should have been. We cry about Target and Equifax and many other exposures that have happened in the last five years, but we also punish those companies by not doing business with them or moving our information elsewhere. Facebook has everyone hooked. We share photos on Facebook. We RSVP to events on Facebook. And we talk to people on Facebook as much or more than we do on the phone. That kind of reach requires a company to be more careful with who has access to our data. And if the solution is building the world’s biggest mattress to keep it all safe put me down for a set of box springs.

 

Some Random Thoughts From Security Field Day

I’m spending the week in some great company at Security Field Day with awesome people. They’re really making me think about security in some different ways. Between our conversations going to the presentations and the discussions we’re having after hours, I’m starting to see some things that I didn’t notice before.

  • Security is a hard thing to get into because it’s so different everywhere. Where everyone just sees one big security community, it is in fact a large collection of small communities. Thinking that there is just one security community would be much more like thinking enterprise networking, wireless networking, and service provider networking are the same space. They may all deal with packets flying across the wires but they are very different under the hood. Security is a lot of various communities with the name in common.
  • Security isn’t about tools. It’s not about software or hardware or a product you can buy. It’s about thinking differently. It’s about looking at the world through a different lens. How to protect something. How to attack something. How to figure all of that out. That’s not something you learn from a book or a course. It’s a way of adjusting your thinking to look at problems in a different way. It’s not unlike being in an escape room. Don’t look at the objects like you normally would. Instead, think about them with unique combinations that get you somewhere different than where you thought you needed to be.
  • Security is one of the only IT disciplines where failure is an acceptable outcome. If we can’t install a router or a wireless access point, it’s a bad job. However, in security if you fail to access something that should have been secured it was a success. That can lead to some very interesting situations that you can find yourself in. It’s important to realize that you also have to properly document your “failure” so people know what you tried to do to get there. Otherwise your success may just be a lack of proper failure.

Tom’s Take

I’m going to have some more thoughts from Security Field Day coming up another time. There’s just too much to digest at one time. Stay tuned for some more great discussions and highlights of my first real foray in the security community!

What Makes a Security Company?

When you think of a “security” company, what comes to mind? Is it a software house making leaps in technology to save us from DDoS attacks or malicious actors? Maybe it’s a company that makes firewalls or intrusion detection systems that stand guard to keep the bad people out of places they aren’t supposed to be. Or maybe it’s something else entirely.

Tradition Since Twenty Minutes Ago

What comes to mind when you think of a traditional security company? What kinds of technology do they make? Maybe it’s a firewall. Maybe it’s an anti-virus program. Or maybe it’s something else that you’ve never thought of.

Is a lock company like Schlage a security company? Perhaps they aren’t a “traditional” IT security company but you can guarantee that you’ve seen their products protecting data centers and IDF closets. What about a Halon system manufacturer? They may not be a first thought for security, but you can believe that a fire in your data center is going cause security issues. Also, I remember that I learned more about Halon and wet/dry pipe fire sprinkler systems from my CISSP study than anywhere else.

The problem with classifying security companies as “traditional” or “non-traditional” is that it doesn’t reflect the ways that security can move and change over the course of time. Even for something as cut-and-dried as anti-virus, tradition doesn’t mean a lot. Symantec is a traditional AV vendor according to most people. But the product that used to be called Norton Antivirus and the product suite that now includes is are worlds apart in functionality. Even though Symantec is “traditional”, what they do isn’t. And when you look at companies that are doing more advanced threat protection mechanisms like deception-based security or using AI and ML to detect patterns, the lines blur considerably.

But, it doesn’t obviate the fact that Symantec is a security company. Likewise, a company can be a security company even if they security isn’t their main focus. Like the Schlage example above, you can have security aspects to your business model without being totally and completely focused on security. And there’s no bigger example of this than a company like Cisco.

A Bridge Not Far Enough?

Cisco is a networking company right? Or are they a server company now? Maybe they’re a wireless company? Or do they do cloud now? There are many aspects to their business models, but very few people think of them as a security company. Even though they have firewalls, identity management, mobile security, Malware protection, VPN products, Email and Web Security, DNS Protection, and even Threat Detection. Does that mean they aren’t really a security company?

It could be rightfully pointed out that Cisco isn’t a security company because many of these technologies they have were purchased over the years from other companies. But does that mean that their solutions aren’t useful or maintained? As I was a doing research for this point, a friend pointed out the story of Cisco MARS and how it was purchased and ultimately retired by Cisco. However, the Cisco acquisition of Protego that netted them MARS happened in 2004. The EOL announcement was in 2011, and the final end-of-support was in 2016. Twelve years is a pretty decent lifetime for any security product.

The other argument is that Cisco doesn’t have a solid security portfolio because they have trouble integrating their products together. A common criticism of large companies like Cisco or Dell EMC is that it is too difficult to integrate their products together. This is especially true in situations where the technologies were acquired over time, just like Cisco.

However, is the converse true? Are standalone products easier to integrate? Is is more simple to take solutions from six different companies and integrate them together in some fashion? I’d be willing to be that outside of robust API support, most people will find that integrating security products from different vendors is as difficult (if not more so) than integrating products from one vendor. Does Cisco have a perfect integration solution? No, they don’t. But why should they? Why should it be expected that companies that acquire solutions immediate burn cycles to make everything integrate seamlessly. Sure, that’s on the roadmap. But integrations with other products is on everyone’s road map.

The last argument that I heard in my research is that Cisco isn’t a security company because they don’t focus on it. They’re a networking (or wireless or server) company. Yet, when you look at the number of people that Cisco has working in a specific business unit on a product, it can often be higher headcount that some independent firms have working on their solutions. Does that mean that Cisco doesn’t know what they’re doing? Or does it mean that individual organizations can have multiple focuses? That’s a question for the customers to answer.


Tom’s Take

I take issue with a definition of “traditional” versus non-traditional. For the reason that Apple is a traditional computer company and so is Wang Computers. Guess which one is still making computers? And even in the case of Apple, you could argue that their main line-of-business is mobile devices now. But, does anyone dispute Apple’s ability to make a laptop? Would a company that does nothing but make laptops be a “better” computer company? The trap of labels like that is that it ignores a significant amount of investment in business at the expense of a quick and easy label. What makes a company a computer company or a security company isn’t how they label themselves. It’s what they do with the technology they have.

Are We Seeing SD-WAN Washing?

You may have seen a tweet from me last week referencing a news story that Fortinet was now in the SD-WAN market:

It came as a shock to me because Fortinet wasn’t even on my radar as an SD-WAN vendor. I knew they were doing brisk business in the firewall and security space, but SD-WAN? What does it really mean?

SD Boxes

Fortinet’s claim to be a player in the SD-WAN space brings the number of vendors doing SD-WAN to well over 50. That’s a lot of players. But how did the come out of left field to land a deal rumored to be over a million dollars for a space that they weren’t even really playing in six months ago?

Fortinet makes edge firewalls. They make decent edge firewalls. When I used to work for a VAR we used them quite a bit. We even used their smaller units as remote appliances to allow us to connect to remote networks and do managed maintenance services. At no time during that whole engagement did I ever consider them to be anything other than a firewall.

Fast forward to 2018. Fortinet is still selling firewalls. Their website still focuses on security as the primary driver for their lines of business. They do talk about SD-WAN and have a section for it with links to whitepapers going all the way back to May. They even have a contributed article for SDxCentral back and February. However, going back that far the article reads more like a security company that is saying their secure endpoints could be considered SD-WAN.

This reminds me of stories of Oracle counting database licenses as cloud licenses so they could claim to be the fourth largest cloud provider. Or if a company suddenly decided that every box they sold counted as an IPS because it had a function that could be enabled for a fee. The numbers look great when you start counting them creatively but they’re almost always a bit of a fib.

Part Time Job

Imagine if Cisco suddenly decided to start counting ASA firewalls as container engines because of a software update that allowed you to run Kubernetes on the box. People would lose their minds. Because no one buys an ASA to run containers. So for a company like Cisco to count them as part of a container deployment would be absurd.

The same can be said for any company that has a line of business that is focused on one specific area and then suddenly decides that the same line of business can be double-counted for a new emerging market. It may very well be the case that Fortinet has a huge deployment of SD-WAN devices that customers are very happy with. But if those edge devices were originally sold as firewalls or UTM devices that just so happened to be able to run SD-WAN software, it shouldn’t really count should it? If a customer thought they were buying a firewall they wouldn’t really believe it was actually an SD-WAN router.

The problem with this math is that everything gets inflated. Maybe those SD-WAN edge devices are dedicated. But, if they run Fortinet’s security suite are also being counting in the UTM numbers? Is Cisco going to start counting every ISR sold in the last five years as a Viptela deployment after the news this week that Viptela software can run on all of them? Where exactly are we going to draw the line? Is it fair to say that every x86 chip sold in the last 10 years should count for a VMware license because you could conceivably run a hypervisor on them? It sounds ridiculous when you put it like that, but only because of the timelines involved. Some crazier ideas have been put forward in the past.

The only way that this whole thing really works is if the devices are dedicated to their function and are only counted for the purpose they were installed and configured for. You shouldn’t get to add a UTM firewall to both the security side and the SD-WAN side. Cisco routers should only count as traditional layer 3 or SD-WAN, not both. If you try to push the envelope to put up big numbers designed to wow potential customers and get a seat at the big table, you need to be ready to defend your reporting of those numbers when people ask tough questions about the math behind those numbers.


Tom’s Take

If you had told me last year that Fortinet would sell a million dollars worth of SD-WAN in one deal, I’d ask you who they bought to get that expertise. Today, it appears they are content with saying their UTM boxes with a central controller count as SD-WAN. I’d love to put them up against Viptela or VeloCloud or even CloudGenix and see what kind of advanced feature sets they produce. If it’s merely a WAN aggregation box with some central control and a security suite I don’t think it’s fair to call it true SD-WAN. Just a rinse and repeat of some washed up marketing ideas.

Devaluing Data Exposures

I had a great time this week recording the first episode of a new series with my co-worker Rich Stroffolino. The Gestalt IT Rundown is hopefully the start of some fun news stories with a hint of snark and humor thrown in.

One of the things I discussed in this episode was my belief that no data is truly secure any more. Thanks to recent attacks like WannaCry and Bad Rabbit and the rise of other state-sponsored hacking and malware attacks, I’m totally behind the idea that soon everyone will know everything about me and there’s nothing that anyone can do about it.

Just Pick Up The Phone

Personal data is important. Some pieces of personal data are sacrificed for the greater good. Anyone who is in IT or works in an area where they deal with spam emails and robocalls has probably paused for a moment before putting contact information down on a form. I have an old Hotmail address I use to catch spam if I’m relative certain that something looks shady. I give out my home phone number freely because I never answer it. These pieces of personal data have been sacrificed in order to provide me a modicum of privacy.

But what about other things that we guard jealously? How about our mobile phone number. When I worked for a VAR that was the single most secretive piece of information I owned. No one, aside from my coworkers, had my mobile number. In part, it’s because I wanted to make sure that it got used properly. But also because I knew that as soon as one person at the customer site had it, soon everyone would. I would be spending my time answering phone calls instead of working on tickets.

That’s the world we live in today. So many pieces of information about us are being stored. Our Social Security Number, which has truthfully been misappropriated as an identification number. US Driver’s Licenses, which are also used as identification. Passport numbers, credit ratings, mother’s maiden name (which is very handy for opening accounts in your name). The list could be a blog post in and of itself. But why is all of this data being stored?

Data Is The New Oil

The first time I heard someone in a keynote use the phrase “big data is the new oil”, I almost puked. Not because it’s a platitude the underscores the value of data. I lost it because I know what people do with vital resources like oil, gold, and diamonds. They horde them. Stockpiling the resources until they can be refined. Until every ounce of value can be extracted. Then the shell is discarded until it becomes a hazard.

Don’t believe me? I live in a state that is legally required to run radio and television advertisements telling children not to play around old oilfield equipment that hasn’t been operational in decades. It’s cheaper for them to buy commercials than it is to clean up their mess. And that precious resource? It’s old news. Companies that extract resources just move on to the next easy source instead of cleaning up their leftovers.

Why does that matter to you? Think about all the pieces of data that are stored somewhere that could possibly leak out about you. Phone numbers, date of birth, names of children or spouses. And those are the easy ones. Imagine how many places your SSN is currently stored. Now, imagine half of those companies go out of business in the next three years. What happens to your data then? You can better believe that it’s not going to get destroyed or encrypted in such a way as to prevent exposure. It’s going to lie fallow on some forgotten server until someone finds it and plunders it. Your only real hope is that it was being stored on a cloud provider that destroys the storage buckets after the bill isn’t paid for six months.

Devaluing Data

How do we fix all this? Can this be fixed? Well, it might be able to be done, but it’s not going to be fun, cheap, or easy. It all starts by making discrete data less valuable. An SSN is worthless without a name attached to it, for instance. If all I have are 9 random numbers with no context I can’t tell what they’re supposed to be. The value only comes when those 9 numbers can be matched to a name.

We’ve got to stop using SSN as a unique identifier for a person. It was never designed for that purpose. In fact, storing SSN as all is a really bad idea. Users should be assigned a new, random ID number when creating an account or filling out a form. SSN shouldn’t be stored unless absolutely necessary. And when it is, it should be treated like a nuclear launch code. It should take special authority to query it, and the database that queries it should be directly attached to anything else.

Critical data should be stored in a vault that can only be accessed in certain ways and never exposed. A prime example is the trusted enclave in an iPhone. This enclave, when used for TouchID or FaceID, stores your fingerprints and your face map. Pretty important stuff, yes? However, even with biometric ID systems become more prevalent there isn’t any way to extract that data from the enclave. It’s stored in such a way that it can only be queried in a specific manner and a result of yes/no returned from the query. If you stole my iPhone tomorrow, there’s no way for you to reconstruct my fingerprints from it. That’s the template we need to use going forward to protect our data.


Tom’s Take

I’m getting tired of being told that my data is being spread to the four winds thanks to it lying around waiting to be used for both legitimate and nefarious purposes. We can’t build fences high enough around critical data to keep it from being broken into. We can’t keep people out, so we need to start making the data less valuable. Instead of keeping it all together where it can be reconstructed into something of immense value, we need to make it hard to get all the pieces together at any one time. That means it’s going to be tough for us to build systems that put it all together too. But wouldn’t you rather spend your time solving a fun problem like that rather than making phone calls telling people your SSN got exposed on the open market?