Security Threat Analysis: Interview With Dino A. Dai Zovi

Risk Versus Exploit Versus Vulnerability

Alan: I chatted with Charlie earlier and he had the same thoughts. You know, I’m not a security researcher, but I am a technical user and use Vista and Fedora Linux. I recently switched to a Mac for my personal system. We had a lot of upset readers who claimed that Apple was buying us off. (Ed.: For the record, neither Tom’s Hardware nor Alan have a relationship of any sort with Apple. They don't advertise and they don't support us with hardware--they don't even send over their press releases).

One of my goals in doing these articles and interviews is to get our readers to look at things in less of a black and white (PCs versus Macs). Just as Gray Hat hackers can take a more sophisticated analysis when they understand methods used by both sides of the battle, there is something to be said about using multiple operating systems.

Dino: There is more security in diversity and if your data is spread across those multiple systems, there is less chance of an attacker gaining access to it all. Unless, of course, you log into them from each other or they are on the same network. In reality, most system compromises occur through the Web browser these days, so an average malware attack is unlikely to breach other systems of yours over the network if they are running a different operating system.

Alan: One of the things you've tried to emphasize in your talks is the concept of risk versus vulnerability. Can you explain to our readers the difference?

Dino: A vulnerability is a weakness in a system that can potentially be exploited by an attacker. The risk presented by that vulnerability is based on the likelihood that an attacker will take advantage of that vulnerability. I also phrase this as "safety" versus "security" because that is easier for non-technical people to understand.

Leaving your house front door unlocked is always insecure, but depending on where you live, it may or may not be safe to do so.

It is important that the security of a system match its risk. Defenders, however, are always playing catch-up to the attackers unless they properly anticipate the risks. It makes little sense to wait for malware to start attacking Mac OS X in droves before developing integrated defenses against it. While we cannot anticipate the next form of Internet attacks, Web-based malware is a reality today.

Alan: And what about the difference between an exploit and a vulnerability?

Dino: A vulnerability is a software weakness that could potentially be taken advantage of by an attacker. The act of taking advantage of a vulnerability is referred to as "exploiting it" and the software program that does so is typically referred to as an "exploit." In reality, not all vulnerabilities are readily or reliably exploitable.

Without experience exploiting software security vulnerabilities, it is often difficult to ascertain whether a vulnerability may be exploitable. Quite often, vulnerabilities assumed to be exploitable are proven to be so by inventive and talented exploit developers. In gauging exploitability, the only knowable fact is whether a given vulnerability is exploitable by the analyst looking at it.

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  • cruiseoveride
    Wonder why he didnt mention SELinux
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  • mrubermonkey
    If it were so easy to "take down the Internet" I am sure Iran or China would have done it by now, but the vagueness of his last answer does add to the mystic of his image.
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  • AlanDang
    Not really -- the black hats make money off the Internet -- it doesn't help them. By definition though, the risk is always about "taking down" a few IXP's or the +1 nodes.
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  • Anonymous
    "Selectively granting privileges to enhanced functionality to Web sites is an area where most Web browsers can improve".

    They may not be core functions but everyone I know who is concerned with security on the Internet uses Firefow with the add-ins Noscript & Flashblock.
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  • vaskodogama
    mrubermonkeyIf it were so easy to "take down the Internet" I am sure Iran or China would have done it by now, but the vagueness of his last answer does add to the mystic of his image.

    I am from Iran, All the Iranian Goverment can do, is blocking porn and politics web sites! :D
    [We People mostly not believe in the goverment, and ayatollahs, because they are mostly thieves! We Stand on the ground of wealth, and they are teroring us and eat our oil and money! This is a Tech site, so i'm not gonna talk more about this! cheers!]
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  • pcworm
    I'm also from Iran , come one, we still connect using bloody dial up, you guys cant be serious! although due to the "no copyright" law we can buy Windows, Mathlab, VS 2008 team System,office 2007 and a lot more for less than a dollar each...:-) you dont need broadband here cause piracy is official
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  • Gutbop
    Dino: I'm a die-hard Unix user and Mac OS X is the most convenient and functional Unix-based operating system that I have ever used. I can code in a traditional Unix environment, watch a DVD, and use Microsoft Office all on the same system. The system JUST WORKS and lets me get my job done.

    Ahahahaha. Really!? Are you kidding me? Did Apple pay you to say that?
    -2
  • Gutbop
    Dino: I'm a die-hard Unix user and Mac OS X is the most convenient and functional Unix-based operating system that I have ever used. I can code in a traditional Unix environment, watch a DVD, and use Microsoft Office all on the same system. The system JUST WORKS and lets me get my job done.

    Ahahahaha. Really!? Are you kidding me? Did Apple pay you to say that?
    -9
  • Gutbop
    Dino: I'm a die-hard Unix user and Mac OS X is the most convenient and functional Unix-based operating system that I have ever used. I can code in a traditional Unix environment, watch a DVD, and use Microsoft Office all on the same system. The system JUST WORKS and lets me get my job done.

    Ahahahaha. Really!? Are you kidding me? Did Apple pay you to say that?
    -8
  • Anonymous
    I am a Mac user as well. I also use many versions of Windows and Linux in VM. I am not a security expert or anything but why is everyone hung up on someone taking down the internet. Hackers use the net to make money or prove a point. I don't think they are going to shut the net down and hold it hostage, who would be forking over the money anyway. And if they did it to prove a point how would they ever get recognition for the task when all communication stops.
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  • bounty
    Actually if there was a country that didn't like "the west," and they wanted to disrupt our economy, the internet is the softest target. I don't see North Korea flying over and dropping bombs on our factories. I could see them taking some DNS servers out and making it real hard for those factories to sell anything. And since info flows freely via the net, it's not like you need to use a ton of resources to gain this attack vector, just a few smart people, an internet connection and some time.
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  • michaelahess
    DNS, the achilles heel of the net....I think I met this guy once, not sure, but a buddy of mine is in the exact same line of business, might have just heard him talking about him though.....the name just sounds so familiar, maybe he wiped my mind before we walked away.....{homer simpson} ummmm, conspiracy theories....
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  • antiacid
    Honestly, I found this interview short, lacking in detail and depth and strong on the evangelism.

    Sure, you can make a point of saying "we aren't on Apple's payroll" but at the end of the article, it is still a pretty big advertisement to them for no reason. The main point is that the new malwares are not based on OS flaws but on browser flaws, yet you still go out of your way to advertise the security of OSX (even going as far as speculating on tiger leopard features).

    Anyway, if the guy obviously isn't going to comment or answer a question, cut it out of the interview instead of having a longer question than the associated answer...
    -2
  • AlanDang
    Browser flaws are still tied to the operating system. We bring it up because it's a natural question -- at the end of the day, there must be one computer that these security researchers are using and surprisingly, many security professionals use a Mac on a regular basis.

    By definition, I am a technology evangelist. I want to share with others the benefits of what technology can bring to the table and also what its limitations are. Fundamentally, I think that security is going to be as significant of an issue to a computer enthusiast as "cooling/thermal management" was. The threats are real and increasing. The people who claim that they have never been infected by malware are either ignorant that they have been infected or limiting their online experience by disabling flash, javascript, etc.

    Right and if we edited the comments, readers would start to cry censorship. That is the conversation we had.
    2
  • zonezero
    I have worked for several ISP's and we never see a Mac that has anything other than hardware or configuration problems. I do see on a weekly basis people with Windows computers that are infected and some that are regularly infected with the malware of the week.

    I never owned or used a Mac other than those of my customers before my current job where I was forced to use a new iMac with 10.5 installed. While I still don't like the Mac and have more repect for those who use it.

    Computers are a tool and like any tool it can be used for the wrong job or improperly used for the right job. Pick the tool that best suits you and the job you are performing.
    1
  • zonezero
    I have worked for several ISP's and we never see a Mac that has anything other than hardware or configuration problems. I do see on a weekly basis people with Windows computers that are infected and some that are regularly infected with the malware of the week.

    I never owned or used a Mac other than those of my customers before my current job where I was forced to use a new iMac with 10.5 installed. While I still don't like the Mac and have more repect for those who use it.

    Computers are a tool and like any tool it can be used for the wrong job or improperly used for the right job. Pick the tool that best suits you and the job you are performing.
    0
  • zonezero
    I have worked for several ISP's and we never see a Mac that has anything other than hardware or configuration problems. I do see on a weekly basis people with Windows computers that are infected and some that are regularly infected with the malware of the week.

    I never owned or used a Mac other than those of my customers before my current job where I was forced to use a new iMac with 10.5 installed. While I still don't like the Mac and have more repect for those who use it.

    Computers are a tool and like any tool it can be used for the wrong job or improperly used for the right job. Pick the tool that best suits you and the job you are performing.
    0
  • Anonymous
    He's cute. :P
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  • dedhorse
    So basically, he uses OSX for web browsing, while all his real work is done on Vista in a VM, which tells you all you need to know about those two operating systems.
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  • BillLake
    Wow, no matter what is said, people defend or attack the OS based on who made it. Apple or Microsoft are just tools, OS X is only less targeted while even if Vista is more secure it is more targeted. Currently you are safe on a OS X based PC and that is what he said. No one is saying it is more secure, in fact he said and so did Charlie Miller that OS X is less secure but safer.

    If you really want to be safe, why not use a diskless system, boot off a live CD and only use that to surf the web, then the infection can only be in the memory unless you get a virus that attacks the flash prom on the system.
    1