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Sun, 23 Aug 2009

John Viega's "the myths of security".. Really??

i go through a ton of books. Over the past 10 years, this has been dominated by books on computer security, computer science, programming (and some sprinklings of management classics).

I generally stay away from writing reviews, but was genuinely suprised at the number of 5 star reviews Viega's new book had received and felt i had to chime in.

I picked up "the myths of security" (what the computer industry doesn't want you to know) with hope, because O'Reilly books in general are well done and i really liked some of Johns previous books. Alas! I tried hard to think of a good thing to say about the book, and the best i can come up with right now is that "at least, it wont take up space on my bookshelf".

The book is tiny (48 chapters, where each chapter is between a paragraph to 2-3 pages) which isn't a bad thing, but it reads mostly as a collection of blog posts or hurriedly written notes-to-self.

Advertising++ The Foreword alone uses the word McAfee 14 times, and over the 48 chapters, the word McAfee goes on to appear about 65 times. This is acceptable on a blog, in a book i just paid for its slightly annoying.

Target Audience I agree with Bejtlich who cant figure the books target audience. One chapter might give explanations in crayon (presumably for the less sophisticated user) while the next chapter might give advice for how to label the security technology you plan to sell.

Consistency There are a number of times in the book where the author takes opposite sides of an argument (in different chapters). This is useful if coherently positioned as 2 sides of an argument, but if this is used on different arguments on different pages, it seems more like the author is merely choosing the position thats convenient to support his view at the time...

It's slightly odd when compared with his take on security spend to hear the author say this about the TSA and their "Security Theater": "But there's some hidden value here—it makes people feel safer. Whether it works well or poorly, it is better than nothing and it makes people feel better."

General whining (by me). The author dedicates a chapter to Mobile Phones titled "OK, Your Mobile Phone Is Insecure; Should You Care?". He concludes with: "Sure, there will always be the occasional virus for smartphones, but I don't see an epidemic emerging. At the end of the day, there is still lower-hanging fruit for the bad guys. It is still far easier for them to make money attacking traditional PCs and laptops then going after mobile phones. That may eventually change, but I'm not going to hold my breath."

I think the view that you only need to be worried about the ability of your device to withstand an attack "epidemic" is wrong on so many levels. Im far less worried about my iPhone becoming part of a botnet than i am of the fact that these days huge parts of my life are on it, and can be grabbed by Charlie Miller if he is willing to pay the $0.20 to send me a few SMS'es.

In his Epilogue, he writes: "But instead of preaching that the customer is hosed, I'm preaching that the security industry is hosed—I don't think customers are hosed at all." which is an interesting contrast to his chapter on PKI that ends with "That leaves the Internet fundamentally broken."..

Of course the lines that most bothered me were in the chapters on Privacy and Anonymity. Privacy gets just under 200 words but includes the classic line: "privacy is nice in theory, but if you don't have anything to hide, what's the big deal?"

Hmm.. OK.. lets see the take on anonymity before responding.

Anonymity gets 166 words (wow - 100 words more than the word McAfee!) and once more ends with the classic: "Oh, and I've got nothing to hide anyway…."

The author cites the example of Zero-Knowledge, who built a paid service to surf anonymously which "worked pretty well, but nobody cared".

Once more, i think there is so much wrong here, that im not sure where to start. Having to convince someone that Privacy is important even if you cant sell it seems like a pretty old argument to be having..

In general, i think its safe to say that the book left me disappointed, and a little bit afraid that somewhere decision makers could be forming an opinion on an entire industry based on ~250 words dedicated to a topic that deserves much more thought..

/mh