Too much security can be overbearing: Microsoft

Steve Riley

TECH.ED | When does too much security become well too much? According to Steve Riley senior security strategist at Microsoft it becomes too much when the cost of mitigating the risk outweighs the cost of that which you are trying to protect.

Steve’s approach to security spans all horizons not just information technology. He elaborated on this theory in an afternoon session today at Microsoft Tech.Ed entitled “Making the Tradeoff: Be Secure or Get Work Done”.

The cost of securing an asset is not simply the absolute cost of purchasing an enterprise firewall or business-wide malware software according to Riley. It’s measured against the current cost of leaving things as they are – if a couple of machines go down every week because of security vulnerabilities that is a cost which can be measured and taken into consideration. However if the cost is actually less than the cost of removing the problem bizarre as it may sound it might not actually be worth it.

Steve applied this same train of logic to other more worldly scenarios. Child kidnapping for example – apparently American parents are paranoid about kidnapping and so forbid their children to talk to strangers. The result according to Steve is a generation which can’t ask for help when the only source of help is a stranger and a general and unacceptable reduction in human interaction which is the basis of any civilised society.

He prefers to tell his own kids that “…most adults are kind and honest and will help you if you need helping. But no adult needs your help to find their dog.” Teach them to recognise the attacks rather than react negatively to an imagined fear.

And this goes all the way up to the US’s so-called “War on Terror”. According to Steve are any of us really made safer by taking our shoes off to go through metal detectors? Surely X-ray scanners which can see right through people’s clothing is an unacceptable breach of privacy? At the very least do we want to live in a society where this is the accepted norm?

Regardless of the answer to these questions go back to his approach with children and strangers – recognise the methods of attack rather than focus on stopping the tools. Why did the September 11 terrorists use planes to destroy the World Trade Centre? Because it was probably the easiest method at their disposal. If a terrorist wishes kill people at an airport all the security in the world won’t stop them from detonating the bomb while waiting in the security lineup.

These are sobering thoughts and they do make you take a second look at the vast amounts of money and effort going into security “measures” which do much to remove personal liberty and intrude in our daily existence yet prove remarkably ineffective at actually stopping anyone determined to succeed.

There are direct parallels with ordinary everyday security. For example we’re always told never to write down our passwords. As Steve put it “…it’s perfectly OK to write your password down as long as you protect the piece of paper”.

This particular section of Steve’s presentation dealing with the War On Terror doesn’t appear on the US-developed Tech.Ed DVDs — it was censored and removed.

James Bannan is reporting from Tech.Ed Australia 2007 as a guest of Microsoft.

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