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Principle 1: There Is No Such Thing As Absolute Security

In 2003, the art collection of the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester, England, included three famous paintings by Van Gogh, Picasso, and Gauguin. Valued at more than $7 million, the paintings were protected by closed-circuit television (CCTV), a series of alarm systems, and 24-hour rolling patrols. Yet in late April 2003, thieves broke into the museum, evaded the layered security system, and made off with the three masterpieces. Several days later, investigators discovered the paintings in a nearby public restroom along with a note from the thieves saying, “The intention was not to steal, only to highlight the woeful security.”

The burglars’ lesson translates to the information security arena and illustrates the first principle of information security (IS): Given enough time, tools, skills, and inclination, a malicious person can break through any security measure. This principle applies to the physical world as well and is best illustrated with an analogy of safes or vaults that businesses commonly use to protect their assets. Safes are rated according to their resistance to attacks using a scale that describes how long it could take a burglar to open them. They are divided into categories based on the level of protection they can deliver and the testing they undergo. Four common classes of safe ratings are B-Rate, C-Rate, UL TL-15, and UL TL-30:

  • B-Rate: B-Rate is a catchall rating for any box with a lock on it. This rating describes the thickness of the steel used to make the lockbox. No actual testing is performed to gain this rating.
  • C-Rate: This is defined as a variably thick steel box with a 1-inch-thick door and a lock. No tests are conducted to provide this rating, either.
  • UL TL-15: Safes with an Underwriters Laboratory (UL) TL-15 rating have passed standardized tests as defined in UL Standard 687 using tools and an expert group of safe-testing engineers. The UL TL-15 label requires that the safe be constructed of 1-inch solid steel or equivalent. The label means that the safe has been tested for a net working time of 15 minutes using “common hand tools, drills, punches hammers, and pressure applying devices.” Net working time means that when the tool comes off the safe, the clock stops. Engineers exercise more than 50 different types of attacks that have proven effective for safecracking.
  • UL TL-30: UL TL-30 testing is essentially the same as the TL-15 testing, except for the net working time. Testers get 30 minutes and a few more tools to help them gain access. Testing engineers usually have a safe’s manufacturing blueprints and can disassemble the safe before the test begins to see how it works.

As you learn in Chapter 5, “Security Architecture and Design,” security testing of hardware and software systems employs many of the same concepts of safe testing, using computers and custom-developed testing software instead of tools and torches. The outcomes of this testing are the same, though: As with software, no safe is burglar proof; security measures simply buy time. Of course, buying time is a powerful tool. Resisting attacks long enough provides the opportunity to catch the attacker in the act and to quickly recover from the incident. This leads to the second principle.

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