Eugene H. Spafford
Director, COAST Project and Laboratory
W. Lafayette, IN 47907-1398
We are facing a national crisis in the near term that threatens our national security, our individual safety, and our economic dominance. The rapid growth of information technology is a driving factor in this threat: we are relying on new and often fragile technology in critical applications. Furthermore, those applications present attractive targets to criminals, vandals, and foreign adversaries.
Our students and soon-to-be students will be designing our information technologies of the future. We are endangering them and ourselves because the majority of them will receive no training in information security. This is largely because of a severe shortage of resources for computer security education and research. Current programs in place in industry and government do not address these needs, and some may actually serve to increase the problem.
This paper serves to introduce the crisis in providing good computer security education. It presents some of the history and context of this problem. It then provides some suggestions for near-term actions that should help to ensure a safer future for us all.
It is clear that computer security is an area of increasing, major concern and that all of society is facing an increasing number of severe challenges related to security. Incidents related to disclosure of information, wide-scale computer breakins, and the exponential growth in the number of computer viruses being written and discovered all indicate an increasing threat to effective use of computing resources.[+] There have already been many documented cases of economic espionage, vandalism, theft, and other major economic crimes, some of which involve losses in the tens of millions of dollars per incident.[Pow96]
Many computer crimes go undetected. Others go unreported because the victims fear that any publicity about their losses (and by implication, their vulnerabilities) will result in a loss of confidence in their businesses. Additionally, there has been a huge number of cases involving smaller losses, most of which may not have been reported to the authorities for a simple reason: nearly everyone is aware that law enforcement is hopelessly undertrained, underequipped, and understaffed to cope with even a minute fraction of the current flood of computer crime--and this imbalance is steadily improving for the vandals and crooks.
The threat from violations of computer security are numerous and diverse. They include loss from fraud and theft, economic and international espionage, sabotage, terroristic activities, computer viruses, vandalism, and support of other forms of crime. Furthermore, not all of the criminal activities are directed at government, commerce and other organizations: violations of personal privacy, harassment, ``stalking,'' libel, and other activities threaten individuals as well.
A few years ago, the report Computers at Risk[SSSC91], forcefully outlined several critical security problems facing computer users. Few of the recommendations in that study were addressed, and the problems have become even more pressing in the intervening years. Our increasing reliance on computers for critical applications poses increasing temptation for unauthorized criminal and terroristic activity. Our increased connectivity provided by new network technologies simply amplifies the existing threats that we do not yet completely understand. For example, sixteen years ago, the experimental IP protocol suite was introduced as the number of ARPANET hosts exceeded 210; today, we have a worldwide network of several million machines using the same protocol.
The increasingly widespread use of computer technologies involving distributed databases and parallel and distributed processing adds new variables that have not, as yet, been adequately examined. Initiatives that link together computing systems from around the world and that provide access to more users will only add to the potential for security problems. In his State of the Union Address in January 1997, President Clinton voiced a goal of connecting every school and library into the Internet. Are we prepared for the problems that may arise in addition to the perceived benefits of having such widespread access available by the general public?
As was noted in an Office of Technology Assessment report[OTA94, Forward,]:
Information networks are changing the way we do business, educate our children, deliver government services, and dispense health care. Information technologies are intruding in our lives in both positive and negative ways.... As businesses and governments become more dependent on networked computer information, the more vulnerable we are to having private and confidential information fall into the hands of the unintended or unauthorized person....[Safeguards are required] Otherwise, concerns for the security and privacy of networked information may limit the usefulness and acceptance of the global information infrastructure.
The problems are especially pressing in the arena of national defense. Consider this statement in Duane Andrews' cover letter in the Defense Science Board's November 1996 task force report on Information Warfare - Defense[Boa96]:
We conclude that there is a need for extraordinary action to deal with the present and emerging challenges of defending against possible information warfare attacks on facilities, information, information systems, and networks of the United States which would seriously affect the ability of the Department of Defense to carry out its assigned missions and functions. We have observed an increasing dependency on the Defense Information Infrastructure and increased doctrinal assumptions regarding the continued availability of that infrastructure. This dependency and these assumptions are ingredients in a recipe for a national security disaster.
It is interesting to note that this conclusion is independent of whether or not there is concern for protection against directed ``information warfare.'' Widespread criminal enterprises, selected actions by anarchists, or random acts of vandalism can also have ruinous effects on our safety as a nation. Furthermore, as more and more commercial entities move to ``internet commerce,'' the potential for serious disruption of our national economy also looms large.
Consider: in 1980, there were under 200 hosts on the ARPANET.[Sal95] A few countries were beginning to experiment with national networks. The first commercial workstations were not yet on the market, and the PC industry was in its infancy. The first, primitive Usenet newsgroups were flowing among a few dozen machines using 30 cps[+] modem technology. And the World-Wide Web was pure science fiction and a dozen years away.
Now, a mere 17 years later -- one-half of a human generation or one-fifth of human lifetime -- we have a global network that reaches to over 120 countries on all seven continents. We have tens of millions of people using the Internet daily. Governments are using the Internet to run their daily affairs. Commercial overload of service providers makes front-page news in all the major newspapers. Late night comics and editorial cartoons commonly refer to the WWW and network address. The President's State of the Union address is broadcast live around the world over the Internet. Some people estimate that billions of dollars are already invested and changing hands in commerce facilitated through on-line communications.
Where will we be in another 17 years? Although it is difficult for any of us to even imagine the changes in store, there is at least one clear aspect of that future: it will be designed tomorrow, in large part, by today's students. Some of them will enter the workforce and design the technology that will change our lives. Others will initiate the changes with their research projects soon to be underway. And still others will be wrought by those who are soon to be seeking re-education in high-tech fields so as to be productive employees of the 21st century.
This incredible pace of technology is changing our world so rapidly, there is clearly little chance to roll back the clock and reimplement decisions that may have negative security implications. To ensure safe computing, the security (and other desirable properties) must be designed in from the start. To do that, we need to be sure all of our students understand the many concerns of security, privacy, integrity, and reliability.
Unfortunately, this has not happened in recent years. For instance, consider the production of the software on which we currently depend. Commercial software vendors are still writing and releasing software needing patches for ``bugs'' that were well-known as security problems over 20 years ago![+] Even when highly-publicized problems occur, such as the buffer overflow problem exploited by the 1988 Morris ``Internet Worm''[Spa89a, Spa89b], or the year 2000 date problem, those same software faults continue to be incorporated into existing operating systems.
Systems continue to be built using techniques known to be unsafe. Why aren't these problems avoided? Why is it that our students do not learn better security techniques? It is almost certainly because so few of them have access to appropriate education in such topics.
Information security/computer and network security, as an area of specialization, is difficult to accurately define. Even professionals working in the this area have difficulty agreeing on an exact definition that appropriately encompasses the field. Part of the reason that security is difficult to describe is because it draws heavily upon so many areas of computing. In at least one sense, it seems closely related to software engineering -- computer security is devoted to ensuring that software and hardware meet their specifications and requirements when used in a potentially hostile environment. Computer security thus includes issues in computer system specification, verification, testing, validation, safety, and reliability. However, security encompasses much more than these issues, including topics in (at the least) operating systems design, architectural design, information security, risk analysis and prediction, database organization, encryption and coding, formal models of computation, fault tolerance, network and protocol design, supportive interface design, government regulation and policy, managerial decisions, security awareness, and education.
The difficulty in defining computer security is also reflected in the scattered and underdeveloped educational and research programs in the area. Many other fields of computing research have well-defined bodies of educational literature, major research centers funded by government and industry, and a substantial student interest. Meanwhile, the field of computer security has been represented in academic life in the past dozen years by short chapters in textbooks on operating systems, data communications, and databases, and by a few individuals working in isolation in academia. The field currently has only a few widely-circulated archival journals in computer security topics: e.g., Computers & Security, Journal of Cryptography, and the Journal of Computer Security. And the public perception of computer security is shaped[+] by sensationalism such as computer virus scares, stories of 14-year old children breaking into sensitive military systems, and movies such as ``The Net'' and ``Hackers.''
Few universities or colleges offer in-depth education in computer security. As of mid-1996, there were only three declared, dedicated computer security research centers in degree-granting departments at universities in the United States (these are discussed in the next section); in November of 1996, a fourth center came into public existence. When computer security courses are taught, relatively few textbooks on computer security are in use, and several of the most commonly used ones are principally devoted to cryptography (e.g., [Den83]) or are outdated.
Research in academia is being done by a limited number of faculty at scattered locations working with a few students. What research is being done, in academia or commercially, has traditionally been oriented towards limited military requirements because until recently that is where the major demand has been (and where the funding has been available). The recent trend has been somewhat more open, but is still focused on a few narrow areas involving cryptographic support for electronic commerce and network firewalls. Although these technologies are significant, they are not addressing more important security needs. By way of illustration, I have been using the following analogy in my lectures and seminars on this topic over the past few years:
Focusing our research on cryptographic protocols for secure electronic commerce is akin to investing all our money to build heavily armored cars. However, those armored cars will spend their lifetimes transferring checks written in crayon by people on park benches to merchants doing business in cardboard boxes under highway overpasses. Meanwhile, there are no traffic regulations, anyone on a skateboard can change the traffic lights with a screwdriver, and there are no police.
This lack of visibility, training, and coordinated research efforts has led to a significant shortage of practitioners trained in practical computing security, and to a critical shortage of academic faculty prepared to offer advanced instruction in this area. This contributes to a lack of consideration of security issues when new computer systems are being designed, thus placing those new systems at risk. As technology propels us into a future where global networks of communicating, multi-vendor computer systems are commonplace, the lack of universally-accepted social norms and laws will lead to difficulties that only well-designed computer security tools and techniques may prevent. To design those tools and train that workforce, we need an experienced, well-educated core of faculty.[+]
Education and research in computer security-related issues has usually been conducted under a number of different rubrics reflecting its cross-disciplinary nature. Work in areas such as computer architecture, operating systems, data communications, database systems, and software engineering has addressed questions of computer security. Despite advances in all these areas, most direct security-related research in the last few decades has been largely directed towards only a few selected topics. For instance, most of the systems-oriented research done to date has been in support of formal trust models for multi-level secure machines employed in military settings, including compartmented-mode workstations. The results of this research is usually of little use in ``real-world'' computing environments. This is because the traditional focus of such research has primarily been focused on issues of confidentiality [Nat85, Nat88] (keeping information secret), rather than on related issues such as availability and integrity.[+] Thus, there has been little support for research in the area of designing security tools and techniques for everyday use on commercial and educational computing platforms. Furthermore, as more computer users seek to use COTS (commercial, off-the-shelf) components, we will need better protection methods built in to these common systems.
In particular, considerable research in computer security methods and protocols over the last few decades has largely been focused on theoretical models of secure systems, multi-level systems, covert channels, statistical intrusion detection systems, and communications security issues (e.g., cryptography). Insufficient research has been focused on the development of tools for improving general security, policy formation, audit techniques, availability models, network security, computer forensics, countering malicious software (e.g., computer viruses and worms), policy formation, reliability, authentication and integrity methods. In fact, research in many of these important areas has been discouraged by the military for fear that people might collaterally discover ways of penetrating government systems. Another reason work in these areas has been limited may be because such efforts require an interdisciplinary approach and few researchers and research groups have both the breadth and depth of expertise necessary to conduct such investigation. To conduct good research in this area with application potential requires a broad base of resources and focus.
Education and research tend to track sources of demand. Thus, over the past few decades, research funding was made available by the military to researchers to conduct research issues related to military concerns. This tended to direct narrowly the research done in computing security. Journals and conferences came into being to provide outlets for this research, thus leading to a climate that did not readily accomodate research in other areas. The demand for students also shaped this picture, as the majority of job offers for graduates in security would come from either the government itself, from military contractors, or from vendors supplying the military. The overall demand for such graduates was not large. The Internet ``explosion'' has taken many in the community by surprise, to put it mildly.
One result, education in computer and network security in the U.S. is currently provided in a narrow, haphazard and inconsistent fashion. Some standard undergraduate and graduate texts in major course areas (e.g., operating systems) may have a brief chapter on security. These chapters often contain vague information about general security properties that are not particularly helpful in actual use. The instructors have not had direct experience or education in security, so they are unable to augment the material in the texts in any meaningful ways. The result, in the usual case, is that the material is presented in a cursory and compressed manner. As the material is in a separate chapter rather than integrated into the rest of the text, students are further given the implicit impression that security is unimportant, lacking in detail, and a separable concern.
Luckily, this is not true at every college and university. There are a number of faculty with some deeper background and concern with security. These faculty members do attempt to present information security concepts at greater depth in their courses. Even so, few students are given the opportunity to concentrate in security as a specialty, or to see how it cuts across several areas of study. There are only a few score faculty at institutions in the U.S. who conduct some research or specialized education in computer or network security. There are fewer still who have any experience with front-line security response experience.[+]
At the high-end of this specialization, there are four recognized academic centers in areas related to computer and network security in the U.S. Each of the four has several senior faculty whose research specialization is in one or more fields of information security. Each of the four centers has outside funding, recognition by its home university as a center of education and research, and recognition in the community. These four centers are (in order of their founding):
As a set, these represent the most advanced groups involved in both security research and education in the U.S. today. One of the labs (COAST) is widely believed to be the largest such academic lab in the world; it is also located at the highest-ranked department of the four, according to statistics published by the National Research Council[+].
Consider the following information about these four centers combined:
Undoubtedly, graduates with good security training and interests are coming out of other colleges and universities, too. This is not consistent, however -- it depends on students with the right interests and skills matching up with faculty members who happen to have recently found funding for work in a related area. This is not a dependable manner of producing a large cadre of trained professionals.
Even if these four centers account for only a fraction of the production of trained graduates in security-related areas, the numbers are still extremely distressing. Of particular note are the small numbers of Ph.D. graduates going into academia. It is clear that we are falling short in building an educational infrastructure to support the increased need for training in security.
Although it is not possible to accurately interpret all the causes and implications of these numbers, some indications of problems are obtainable by interviewing faculty and recent graduates in the field. Here are a few of the concerns that have been expressed repeatedly in such meetings:
One result of this lack of infrastructure support results in academic faculty spending significant amounts of time on clerical work, acquisitions, and project management, thus taking them away from teaching, advising, and research. This serves both as an example to discourage senior students from seeking academic careers, and as a factor encouraging existing faculty to consider leaving academia for careers with less time spent in clerical duties.
Undoubtedly, the situation is more complex than can be presented in this paper. However, some trends are clear: information security is an increasingly vital concern, there are insufficient educational and research resources to fill the need, there is considerable demand from industry for appropriately trained personnel, and current methods of support for the combination of education and research in computer and network security is woefully inadequate.
We are facing a national crisis in the near term that threatens our national security, our individual safety, and our economic dominance. If we are unable to make a concerted and coordinated improvement in the situation within the next few years, we may find ourselves facing a ``security awareness deficit'' that we will not be able to overcome. That deficit will make us vulnerable to attacks from without and vandalism from within. It will also lead to increased pressure on our public servants to come up with immediate ``solutions'' that may be worse than the problems they solve, and that threaten some of the very principles from which our republic draws its strength. We must act quickly to prevent this from happening.
The following recommendations for action, if heeded, would undoubtedly make a significant improvement in this area of need:
Note that this is not necessarily a recommendation for (or against) providing significant research funds for faculty in these centers. There are already many competitive programs available via NSF, DARPA, DOE, and other agencies to provide major project support. Qualified faculty can compete for these merit-based awards alongside their peers. However, infrastructure support is needed to ensure that a long-term base for education and collaboration is kept viable. Some on-going seed funding for research through these centers would be appropriate, however, to encourage continual exploration of frontiers not yet recognized by the traditional funding sources.
The future need not be bleak if decisive action is taken. A small level of funding[+] over the next decade would serve to dramatically increase our national readiness and capabilities in information security.
The urgency of the problem is well-stated in the summary of the report [+] of the Joint Security Commission (I have emphasized some text from the original):
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the area of information systems and networks. The Commission considers the security of information systems and networks to be the major security challenge of this decade and possibly the next century and believes that there is insufficient awareness of the grave risks we face in this area. The nation's increased dependence upon the reliable performance of the massive information systems and networks that control the basic functions of our infrastructure carries with it an increased security risk. Never has information been more accessible or more vulnerable. This vulnerability applies not only to government information but also to the information held by private citizens and institutions. We have neither come to grips with the enormity of the problem nor devoted the resources necessary to understand fully, much less rise to, the challenge. ... Protecting the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of the nation's information systems and information assets--both public and private--must be among our highest national priorities.[Joi94, p. 2,]
It is time that we joined together to treat this national priority with the seriousness it deserves.
I would like to thank the following people for their thoughtful comments and input to this paper: Mikhail Atallah, Rebecca Bace, William Cook, Yvo Desmedt, Dan Geer, Mark Graff, Sushil Jajodia, Karl Levitt, Steve Lodin, Katherine Price, Ravi Sandhu, Christoph Schuba, and Chris Wee. The conclusions discussed in this paper do not necessarily represent the views of any organization or person except those of the author.
For illustrative purposes, this is an annotated version of the mission statement and set of goals for the COAST Laboratory at Purdue. This should help explain why a center-based approach is being taken, and the benefits of such an approach. Unfortunately, researchers at COAST have been unable to identify any Federal programs that will provide support for most of these goals, except to fund very narrowly-focused research projects over a two or three year period. This is not sufficient to sustain a program of the (needed) scope of the one described below.
The mission of the COAST (Computer Operations Audit and Security Technology) Project and Laboratory is to conduct research and education on general and practical tools and techniques for improving computer and network security. The specific focus of this research is on typical computing environments -- systems without multi-level requirements, and without formal levels of trust. In particular, our short-term research is directed to developing approaches of increasing the security of existing systems without severely impacting their usability. Our goal is to explore how to increase confidence in existing systems in a cost-effective and user-friendly manner. Our long-term research is directed to how to integrate better security mechanisms into common computing platforms. Using this research as a teaching mechamism, we are committed to providing a comprehensive and thorough education in security to our students at every level.
Operationally, COAST will bring together expertise of many faculty from throughout the university environment, provide shared resources in computer security research, and provide a unified approach to the research and education efforts in this vital area. It will provide a focal point both for internal and external agencies seeking reliable information about computer and network security, computer crime investigation, and appropriate computer use.
The specific, long-term goals of COAST is to have it continue to be: