Named Vulnerabilities and Dread Risk

In the middle of my 200 mile drive home today, it occurred to me that the reason Heartbleed, Shellshock and Poodle received so much focus and attention, both within the IT community and generally in the media, is the same reason that most people fear flying: something that Gerd Gigerenzer calls “dread risk” in his book “Risk Savvy: How to Make Good Decisions”.  The concept is simple: most of us dread the thought of dying in a spectacular terrorist attack or a plane crash, which are actually HIGHLY unlikely to kill us, while we have implicitly accepted the risks of the far more common yet mundane things that will almost certainly kill us: car crashes, heart disease, diabetes and so on. (At least for those of us in the USA)

These named “superbugs” seem to have a similar impact on many of us: they are probably not the thing that will get our network compromised or data stolen, yet we talk and fret endlessly about them, while we implicitly accept the things that almost certainly WILL get us compromised: phishing, poorly designed networks, poorly secured systems and data, drive by downloads, completely off-the-radar and unpatched systems hanging out on our network, and so on.  I know this is a bit of a tortured analogy, but similar to car crashes, heart disease and diabetes, these vulnerabilities are much harder to fix, because addressing them requires far more fundamental changes to our routines and operations.  Changes that are painful and probably expensive.  So we latch on to these rare, high-profile named-and-logo’d vulnerabilities that show up on the 11 PM news and systematically drive them out of our organizations, feeling a sense of accomplishment once that last system is patched.  The systems that we know about, anyhow.

“But Jerry”, you might be thinking, “all that media focus and attention is the reason that everything was patched so fast and no real damage was done!”  There may be some truth to that, but I am skeptical…

Proof of concept code was available for Heartbleed nearly simultaneous to it’s disclosure.  Twitter was alight with people posting contents of memory they had captured in the hours and days following.  There was plenty of time for this vulnerability to be weaponized before most vendors even had patches available, let alone implemented by organizations.

Similarly, proof of concept code for Shellshock was also available right away.  Shellshock, in my opinion and in the opinion of many others, was FAR more significant than Heartbleed, since it allowed execution of arbitrary commands on the system being attacked, and yet there has only been one reported case of an organization being compromised using Shellshock – BrowserStack.  By the way, that attack happened against an old, unpatched dev server that hadn’t been patched for quite some time after ShellShock was announced.  We anecdotally know that there are other servers out on the Internet that have been impacted by ShellShock, but as far as anyone can tell, these are nearly exclusively all but abandon web servers.   These servers appear to be subscribed to botnets for the purposes of DDOS.  Not great, but hardly the end of the world.

And then there’s Poodle.  I don’t even want to talk about Poodle.  If someone has the capability to pull off a Poodle attack, they can certainly achieve whatever end far easier using more traditional methods of pushing client-side malware or phishing pages.

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