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What Is Computer Security?

Computer security is the protection of the items you value, called the assets of a computer or computer system. There are many types of assets, involving hardware, software, data, people, processes, or combinations of these. To determine what to protect, we must first identify what has value and to whom.

A computer device (including hardware, added components, and accessories) is certainly an asset. Because most computer hardware is pretty useless without programs, the software is also an asset. Software includes the operating system, utilities and device handlers; applications such as word processing, media players, or email handlers; and even programs that you may have written yourself. Much hardware and software is off-the-shelf, meaning that it is commercially available (not custom-made for your purpose) and that you can easily get a replacement. The thing that makes your computer unique and important to you is your content: photos, tunes, papers, email messages, projects, calendar information, ebooks (with your annotations), contact information, code you created, and the like. Thus, data items on a computer are assets, too. Unlike most hardware and software, data can be hard—if not impossible—to re-create or replace. These assets are shown in Figure 1-1.

Figure 1-1

Figure 1-1 Computer Objects of Value

These three things—hardware, software, and data—contain or express things like the design for your next new product, the photos from your recent vacation, the chapters of your new book, or the genome sequence resulting from your recent research. All of these things represent intellectual endeavor or property, and they have value that differs from one person or organization to another. It is that value that makes them assets worthy of protection, and they are the elements we want to protect. Other assets, such as access to data, quality of service, processes, human users, and network connectivity, deserve protection, too; they are affected or enabled by the hardware, software, and data. So in most cases, protecting hardware, software, and data covers these other assets as well.

In this book, unless we specifically distinguish among hardware, software, and data, we refer to all these assets as the computer system, or sometimes as the computer. And because processors are embedded in so many devices, we also need to think about such variations as cell phones, implanted pacemakers, and automobiles. Even if the primary purpose of the device is not computing, the device's embedded computer can be involved in security incidents and represents an asset worthy of protection.

After identifying the assets to protect, we next determine their value. We make value-based decisions frequently, even when we are not aware of them. For example, when you go for a swim you can leave a bottle of water on a towel on the beach, but not your wallet or cell phone. The difference relates to the value of the assets.

The value of an asset depends on the asset owner's or user's perspective, and it may be independent of monetary cost, as shown in Figure 1-2. Your photo of your sister, worth only a few cents in terms of paper and ink, may have high value to you and no value to your roommate. Other items' value depends on replacement cost; some computer data are difficult or impossible to replace. For example, that photo of you and your friends at a party may have cost you nothing, but it is invaluable because it can never be replaced. On the other hand, the DVD of your favorite film may have cost a significant portion of your take-home pay, but you can buy another one if the DVD is stolen or corrupted. Similarly, timing has bearing on asset value. For example, the value of the plans for a company's new product line is very high, especially to competitors. But once the new product is released, the plans' value drops dramatically.

Figure 1-2

Figure 1-2 Values of Assets

The Vulnerability–Threat–Control Paradigm

The goal of computer security is protecting valuable assets. To study different ways of protection, we use a framework that describes how assets may be harmed and how to counter or mitigate that harm.

A vulnerability is a weakness in the system, for example, in procedures, design, or implementation, that might be exploited to cause loss or harm. For instance, a particular system may be vulnerable to unauthorized data manipulation because the system does not verify a user's identity before allowing data access.

A threat to a computing system is a set of circumstances that has the potential to cause loss or harm. To see the difference between a threat and a vulnerability, consider the illustration in Figure 1-3. Here, a wall is holding water back. The water to the left of the wall is a threat to the man on the right of the wall: The water could rise, overflowing onto the man, or it could stay beneath the height of the wall, causing the wall to collapse. So the threat of harm is the potential for the man to get wet, get hurt, or be drowned. For now, the wall is intact, so the threat to the man is unrealized.

Figure 1-3

Figure 1-3 Threat and Vulnerability

However, we can see a small crack in the wall—a vulnerability that threatens the man's security. If the water rises to or beyond the level of the crack, it will exploit the vulnerability and harm the man.

There are many threats to a computer system, including human-initiated and computer-initiated ones. We have all experienced the results of inadvertent human errors, hardware design flaws, and software failures. But natural disasters are threats, too; they can bring a system down when the computer room is flooded or the data center collapses from an earthquake, for example.

A human who exploits a vulnerability perpetrates an attack on the system. An attack can also be launched by another system, as when one system sends an overwhelming flood of messages to another, virtually shutting down the second system's ability to function. Unfortunately, we have seen this type of attack frequently, as denial-of-service attacks deluge servers with more messages than they can handle. (We take a closer look at denial of service in Chapters 7 and 15.)

How do we address these problems? We use a control or countermeasure as protection. That is, a control is an action, device, procedure, or technique that removes or reduces a vulnerability. In Figure 1-3, the man is placing his finger in the hole, controlling the threat of water leaks until he finds a more permanent solution to the problem. In general, we can describe the relationship among threats, controls, and vulnerabilities in this way:

  • A threat is blocked by control of a vulnerability.

In this book we take the approach of picking a particular type of threat, usually in the form of an attack. From that threat we determine the vulnerabilities that could allow the threat to cause harm. Finally, we explore the countermeasures that can control the threat or neutralize the vulnerability. Thus, this book is about protecting assets by countering threats that could exploit vulnerabilities.

Before we can protect assets, we have to know the kinds of harm we have to protect them against, so now we explore threats to valuable assets.

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