In case there was any doubt, leaden clouds loom over the future of computer security. At least that's the picture sketched by experts Bruce Schneier and Marcus Ranum in a recent conversation as they envision the state of computing a decade from now.
By 2017, computers will be even more central to our economies, infrastructure and personal lives. They will become increasingly complex and more crucial to our security and well-being than ever before. At the same time, warfare and crimes such as theft and fraud remain a constant, making it high-scale breakdowns much more probable.
"I believe it's increasingly likely that we'll suffer catastrophic failures in critical infrastructures systems by 2017," said Ranum, who helped design the first commercial firewall. "It probably won't be terrorists that do it, though. More likely, we'll suffer some kind of horrible outage because a critical system was connected to a non-critical system that was connected to the internet so someone could get to MySpace."
In other words, criminals and terrorists exploiting weaknesses in cyberspace will find an ally in the complexity and poor design that are the hallmarks of today's computer systems.
Schneier doesn't disagree so much as quibble. Computer security is improving, the founder of BT Counterpane, argues. But so too is the placement of computers into every aspect of our lives, making the scenarios of cyberterrorism increasingly likely.
"By 2017, the interconnections will be so critical that it will probably be cost-effective - and low-risk - for a terrorist organization to attack over the internet," he says. "I also deride talk of cyberterror today, but I don't think I will be in another 10 years."
Another trend that worries these modern day Nostrodamuses is the growing lack of control end-users have over their machines. They even mention the iPhone, Apple's popular status symbol, by name.
"Where this affects security is that by 2017, people and organizations won't have a lot of control over their security," Schneier says. "Everything will be handled at the ISPs and in the backbone." Increasingly, he goes on to say, the free-wheeling days of the PC will be replaced with gizmos like the iPhone, in which users have little choice what is included and dissenters will find their devices remotely disabled.
This move toward "software Stalinism" - as Ranum calls it - might not be such a bad thing for security. After all, aren't those who rule with an iron fist credited with things like lowering crime rates and making the trains run on time? Not this time around. The problem is that the control wielded by these megalomaniacal software dictators do little to make our computing safer.
"Imagine we're living in a world of Trustworthy Computing, where no software can run on your Windows box unless Microsoft approves it," Schneier says. "Once you figure out how to hack the control system, you're pretty much golden. So instead of a zillion pesky worms, by 2017 we're going to see fewer but worse super worms that sail past our defenses."
This increased control also has the effect of trampling civil liberties by putting more control into the hands of government, Schneier frets.
Ultimately, the pair seem ambivalent about which is the bigger threat. Sure, terrorists' and criminals' embrace of cyberspace is worrisome. But as computers get embedded into every facet of our infrastructure, bloat may emerge as an equal, if not bigger threat.
"I think they're more likely to be accidents where the system crumbles under the weight of its own complexity, rather than hostile action," Ranum says. "Will we even be able to figure out what happened, when it happens?" ®