Who is responsible?

Galina Pildush ended her LTE presentation with a very good question:”Who is responsible for LTE security?  Is it the users? UE (User Equipment, handsets and devices) manufacturers and vendors?  Network providers, operators and telcos?”

It’s a great question, and one that needs to be applied to every area of security.

In the SOHO (Small Office/Home Office) and personal sphere, it has long been assumed that it’s the user who is responsible.  Long assumed, but possibly changing.  Apple, particularly with the iOS/iPhone/iPad lines, has moved toward a model where the vendor (Apple) locks down the device, and only allows you certain options for software and services.  Not all of them are produced or provided by Apple, but Apple gets vetting responsibilities and rights.

The original “user” responsibility model has not worked particularly well.  Most people don’t know how to protect themselves in regard to information security.  Malware and botnets are rampant.  In the “each man for himself” situation, many users do not protect themselves, with significant consequences for the computing environment as a whole.  (For years I have been telling corporations that they should support free, public security awareness training.  Not as advertising or for goodwill, but as a matter of self defence.  Reducing the number of infected users out there will reduce the level of risk in computing and communication as a whole.)

The “vendor” model, in Apple’s case (and Microsoft seems to be trying to move in that direction) has generated a reputation, at least, for better security.  Certainly infection and botnet membership rates appear to be lower in Macs than in Windows machines, and lower still in the iOS world.  (This, of course, does nothing to protect the user from phishing and other forms of fraud.  In fact, it would be interesting to see if users in a “walled garden” world were slightly more susceptible to fraud, since they were protected from other threats and had less need to be paranoid.)  The model also has significant advantages as a business model, where you can lock in users (and providers, as well), so it is obviously going to be popular with the vendors.

Of course, there are drawbacks, for the vendors, in this model.  As has been amply demonstrated in current mobile network situations, providers are very late in rolling out security patches.  This is because of the perception that the entire responsibility rests with the provider, and they want to test every patch to death before releasing it.  If that role falls to the vendors, they too will have to take more care, probably much more care, to ensure software is secure.  And that will delay both patch cycles and version cycles.

Which, of course, brings us to the providers.  As noted, there is already a problem here with patch releases.  But, after all, most attacks these days are network based.  Proper filtering would not only deal with intrusions and malware, but also issues like spam and fraud.  After all, if the phishing message never reaches the user, the user can’t be defrauded.

So, in theory, we can make a good case that the provider would be the most effective locus for responsibility for security.  They have the ability to address the broadest range of security issues.  In reality, of course, it wouldn’t work.

In the first place, all kinds of users wouldn’t stand for it.  Absent a monopoly market, any provider who tried to provide total security protection, would a) incur prohibitively heavy costs (putting pressure on their competitive rates), and b) lose a bunch of users who would resent restrictions and limitations.  (At present, of course, me know that many providers can get away with being pretty cavalier about security.)  The providers would also, as now, have to deal with a large range of devices.  And, if responsibility is lifted from the vendors, the situation will only get worse: vendors will be able to role out new releases and take even less care with testing than they do now.

In practical terms, we probably can’t, and shouldn’t decide this question.  All parties should take some responsibility, and all parties should take more than they do currently.  That way, everybody will be better off.  But, as Bruce Schneier notes, there are always going to be those who try and shirk their responsibility, relying on the fact that others will not.