The need of security, part 1 of 3.

Azra Yilmaz Poses I

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Of all the things developers have to handle, security tends to be a very important one. However, no one really likes security and we rather live in a society where you can leave your home while keeping your front door open. We generally don’t want to deal with security because it’s a nuisance!

The reality? We lock our doors, afraid that someone gets inside and steal things. Or worse, waits for us to return to kill us. We need it to protect ourselves since we’re living in a world where a few people have very bad intentions.  And we hate it because security costs money, since someone has to pay for the lock. And it takes time to use it, because locking and unlocking a door is still an extra action you need to take.

And when you’re developing software, you generally have the same problem! Security costs money and slows things down a bit. And it is also hard to explain to a client why they have to pay for security and why the security has to cost so much. Clients want the cheapest locks, yet expect their stuff is as safe as Fort Knox or even better.

The worse part of all security measures is that it’s never able to keep everyone out. A lock on your door won’t help if you still leave the window open. And if the window is locked, it is still glass that can be broken. The door can be kicked in too. There are always a lot of ways for the Bad People to get inside so what use is security anyways?

Well, the answer is simple: to slow down any would-be attacker so he can be detected and dealt with, and to make the break-in more expensive than the value of the loot stored inside. The latter means that the more valuable the loot is, the stronger your security needs to be. Fort Knox contains very valuable materials so it has a very strong security system with camera’s and lots of armed guards and extremely thick walls.

So, how does this all translate to software? Well, simple. The data is basically the loot that people are trying to get at. Legally, data isn’t property or doesn’t even has much legal protection so it can’t be stolen. However, data can be copyrighted or it can contain personal information about people. Or, in some cases, the data happens to be secrets that should not be exposed to the outside world. Examples of these three would be digital artwork, your name and bank account number or the formula for a deadly poison that can be made from basic household items.

Of all this data, copyrighted material is the most common item to protect, and this protection is made harder because this material is meant to be distributed. The movie and music industry is having a very hard time protecting all copyrighted material that they have and the same applies to photographers and other graphical artists. But also software developers. The main problem is that you want to distribute a product in return for payment and people are getting it without paying you. You could consider this lost profit, although if people had no option but pay for your product, they might not have wanted it in the first place. So the profit loss is hard to prove.

To protect this kind of material you will generally need some application that can handle the data that you’re publishing. For software, this would be easy because you would include additional code to your project that will check if the software has been legally installed or not. Often, this includes a serial number and additional license information and nowadays it tends to include calling a special web server to check if licenses are still valid.

For music and films, you can use a technique called DRM which works together with proper media players to make additional checks to see if the media copy happens to be from a legal source or not. But it would limit the use of your media to media players that support your DRM methods. And to get media players to support your DRM methods, you need to publish those methods and hope they’re secure enough. But DRM has already been bypassed by hackers many times so it has proven to be not as effective as people hoped.

And then there’s a simpler option. Add a copyright notice to the media. This is the main solution for artwork anyways, since there’s no DRM for just graphic images. You might make the image part of an executable but then you have to build your own picture viewer and users won’t be able to use your image. Not many people want to just see images, unless it is pornography. So you will have to support the basic image file formats, which are generally .JPG or .PNG for any image on the Internet. Or .GIF for animations. And you protect them by adding a warning in the form of a copyright notice. Thus, if someone is misusing your artwork and you discover the use of your art without a proper license, then you can start legal actions against the violator and claim damages. This would start by sending a bill and if they don’t pay, go to court and have a judge force them to pay.

But media like films, music and images tend to be hard to protect and often require going to court to protect your intellectual property. And you won’t always win such cases either.

Next on the list is sensitive, personal information. Things like usernames and passwords, for example. One important rule to remember is that usernames should always be encrypted and passwords should always be hashed. These are two different techniques to protect data and will be explained in the next parts.

But there is more sensitive data that might need to be stored and which would be valuable. An email address could be misused to spam people so that needs to be encrypted. Name, address and phone numbers can be used to look up people and annoy those people by ordering stuff all over the Internet and have it sent to their address. Or to make fake address changes to change their address to somewhere else, so they won’t receive any mail or other services. Or even to visit the address, wait until the people left the house and then break in. And what has happened in the past with addresses of young children is that a child molester learns of their address and goes to visit them to rape and/or kidnap them. So, this information is also sensitive and needs to be encrypted.

Other important information would be bank account information, medical data and employment history would be sensitive enough to have encrypted. Order information from visitors might also be sensitive if the items were expensive since those items would become interesting things to steal. You should basically evaluate every piece of information to determine if it needs to be encrypted or not. In case of doubts, encrypt it just to make it more secure.

Do keep in mind that you can often generate all kinds of reports about this personal data. A simple address list of all your customers, for example. Or the complete medical file of a patient. These documents are sensitive too and need to be protected, but they’re also just basic media like films and artwork so copies of those reports are hard to protect and often not protected by copyrights. So be very careful with report generators and have report contain warnings about how sensitive the data in it actually is. Also useful is to have a cover page included as the first page of a report, in case people will print it. The cover page would thus cover the content if the user keeps it closed. It’s not much protection but all small bits are useful and a cover page prevents easy reading by passer-by’s of the top page of the report.

Personal information is generally protected by privacy laws and thus misuse of personal information is often considered a criminal offense. This is unlike copyright violations, which are just civil offenses in general. But if you happen to be a source of leaking personal information, you and your company could be considered guilty of the same offense and will probably be forced to pay for damages and sometimes a large fine in case of clear negligence in protecting this data.

The last part of sensitive data tends to be ideas, trade secrets and more. In general, these are just media files like reports and thus hard to protect, although there are systems that could store specific data as personal data so you can limit access to it. Ideas and other similar data are often not copyrightable. You can’t get copyright on an idea. You can only get copyright over the document that explains your idea but anyone who hears about your idea can just use it. So if you find a solution for cleaner energy, anyone else could basically build your idea into something working and make profits from it without providing you any compensation. They don’t even have to say it was your idea!

Still, to protect ideas you can use a patent, which you will have to register in many countries just to protect your idea everywhere. Patents become open to the public so everyone will know about it and be able to use it, but they will need to compensate you for using your idea. And you can basically set any price you like. This system tends to be used by patent trolls in general, since they describe very generic ideas and then go after anyone who seems to use something very similar to their idea. They often claim an amount of damages that would be lower than the legal amount it would cost the accused to fight back, so they tend to get paid for this trolling. This is why many are calling for patent reforms to stop these patent trolls from abusing the system.

So, ideas are very sensitive. You generally don’t want to share them with the generic public since it would allow others to implement your ideas. Patents are a bit expensive and not always easy to protect. And you can’t patent everything anyways. Some patents will be refused because they’ve already been patented before. And yet you still need to share them with others so you can build the idea into a project. And for this, you would use a non-disclosure agreement or NDA.

An NDA is basically a contract to make sure you can share your idea with others and they won’t be allowed to share it with more people without your permission. And if your idea does get leaked, those others would have to compensate your financial losses due to leakage as mentioned in the NDA contract. It’s not very secure but it generally does prevent people from leaking your ideas.

Well, except for possible whistleblowers who might leak information about any illegal or immoral parts of your idea. For example, if your idea happens to be to blow up the subway in Amsterdam and have an NDA with a few other terrorists to help you then it becomes difficult when one of those others just walks to the police to report you and those who help you. The NDA just happens to be a contract and can be invalidated for many reasons, including the more obvious criminal actions that would relate to it.

But there are also so-called blacklists of things you can’t force in an NDA, depending on the country where you live. It is just a contract and thus handled by the Civil courts. And if the NDA violates the rights of those who sign it then it could be invalid. One such thing would be the right of free speech, where you would ban people from even discussing if your idea happens to be good or not.

Other sensitive information would be things like instructions on how to make explosives or business information about the future plans of Intel, which could influence the stock market. Some of this information could get you into deep trouble, including the Civil Court or Criminal Court as part of your troubles, resulting in fines and possibly imprisonment if they are leaked.

In general, sensitive information isn’t meant to be shared with lots of people so you should seriously limit access to such information. It should not be printed and you should not email this information either. The most secure location for this information would be on a computer with no internet connection but having a strong firewall that blocks most access methods would be good enough for many purposes.

So we have media, which is hard to protect because it is meant to be published. We have sensitive data which should not fall in the wrong hands for various reasons and we have personal data, which is basically a special case of sensitive data that relates to people and thus has additional laws as protection.

And the way to secure it is by posting warnings and limiting access to the data, which is difficult if it was meant to be published. But for those data that we want to keep private, we have two ways of protecting it next to limiting the physical access to this data.

To keep things private, you will need to have user accounts with passwords or other security keys to lock the data and limit access to it. And these user accounts are already sensitive data so you should start with protecting it here, already.

Of all the things software developers do, security happens to be the most complex and expensive part, since it doesn’t provide any returns on investments made. All it does is try to provide assurance that data will only be available for those who are meant to use it.

The two ways to protect data is through encryption and through hashing, which are two similar things, yet also differ in their purpose. I will discuss both in my next posts.