Securing home computer networks

Bruce Schneier has made a fuss by writing about how he leaves his wireless internet open. As a well regarded security expect, how can he do this. You’ll see many arguments for and against in his posting. I’ll expand on one of mine.

Part of Bruce’s argument is one I express different. I sometimes say “Firewalls are a hoax.” They are the wrong choice for security, but we sell them as a good choice. Oddly, however, this very fact does make them a valid choice. I will explain the contradiction.

Firewalls, I should say, are a form of network security — creating an internal network which is “trusted” and protected from the outside world. In an obscure way, encrypting your wireless net is in this class of security. Note that the “firewall” programs that run on PCs are not network firewalls so they are generally not in this class of security, though they are called Firewalls.

The right way to do things, in the ideal world, is to secure each PC, and to have that PC encrypt its traffic end-to-end with all the sites it communicates with. If you do this, you have almost no need for firewalls or encryption on the network. This is important because in many cases, the idea that your internal network is trustable is a dangerous one. That’s because many networks are populated with insecure consumer computers which frequently get infected with malware (viruses, trojans etc.) They can get infected because they are laptops that visit exposed networks they are not secured well enough for — because you thought you could get away with less on the home net — or because their owner is tricked into downloading malware, or going to a web site that exploits a browser bug, etc.

Once a local computer is infected, your trusted local net betrays you, as the malware now gets to take advantage of all that trust.

We don’t live in that ideal world. The same insecurity these consumer computers (and yes, I mean Windows but other OSs are not immune) have makes them unsuitable for general exposure. The firewall industry gets to sell firewalls because the workstations are so insecure.

In the real world, virus/trojan attacks are the most common. Up to 30% of PCs are “botted” — taken over by malware and acting as zombies under the control of some distant master. A significant number are just plain compromised in other ways, though botting seems the most popular motive today for taking control of systems. The volume of attacks coming in via outsiders sniffing or connecting to your wireless network is insignificant in comparison, I think research would show.

And sadly, while we would like all web traffic to be HTTPS and all E-mail to be secured over TLS, this is just not an option. Most web servers don’t over encrypted versions, and even the ones that do get rarely used because the UI was not set up correctly for it. (Ideally, http should have been designed so that you don’t have to put your encryption desires into the URL — https vs. http — so that it could be negotiated for each connection. Even then, it would be hard to do this though identity certificates could make it happen.)

So we must surf the web in the open, or at best through an encrypted tunnel to a proxy that surfs in the open. So this does call for encrypting one’s wifi. However, again, the number of people sniffing private homes wifi is tiny in comparison to the other threats.

One of the factors supporting Bruce’s choice is that most security continues to have bad UI. The computer and security industries regularly vastly underestimate the importance of good UI. The hard truth is that good security with bad (hard to use) UI simply doesn’t get deployed very much unless you force it and force it hard. This suggests that lesser security with good UI can actually deliver more real world results than better security with bad UI.

For encrypting networks, the UI is poor. Different vendors use different passphrase algorithms to input keys. For many devices (phones, digital picture frames etc.) even entering a passphrase is difficult. We’re starting to see some better UI but it’s slow to deploy and for now it is no surprise that people want to leave their nets open, both for their own devices, and to give access to guests in their home or office.

To my mind the ideal UI is a device tries to connect to the network, and the AP or a computer flashes a light that says that one, and exactly one device is asking to join the net. You then push a button to confirm that device. Also good is the ability to allow arbitrary devices to connect in a secured channel but with no special ability to route packets to one another or into general devices. A full configuration has an internal net (with routing), guest devices that can’t route to the internal net or to other guests, and host devices which can be seen by guests but not the outside world.

Oddly, as I said at the start, the choices we make affect the value of the choices. Because NATs and firewalls provide some security, people (and vendors) allow the computers behind these NATs and firewalls to be insecure in a way they never would or could if the NATs and firewalls weren’t there. This in turn makes the NATs and firewalls worthwhile. And yes, random attacks from outside will always be more probable than attacks from the inside from compromised machines, and they will be more probable than attacks from neighbours. So it’s not as simple as we like. However, computers are going to roam more and more. My PDA has wifi and roams. It also has EVDO and some day those networks will open and need more endpoint security.

So is Bruce right or wrong? Both. The real world risk of what he’s doing isn’t great. It’s not zero, either. The real question is whether the UI penalties of an encrypted network are worse than the risk. And that decision varies from person to person. Better UI and protocol design could mostly eliminate the tradeoff, which is the real lesson.

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