Interview with Arne Vidstrom, techical editor of the “HackNotes Windows Security Portable Reference”

Who is Arne Vidstrom? Introduce yourself to our readers.

I’m a 29 years old Swedish security reseacher who run the web site, where I publish a collection of my own security tools for Windows and some other things. I work as an IT Security Research Scientist at the Swedish Defence Research Agency, and prior to that I worked as a Computer Security Engineer at the telecom operator Telia. I hold a university diploma in electronic engineering and a B.Sc. in mathematics from the University of Karlstad. Aside from sitting at a computer several hours a day I read books about psychology, do fitness training, practice martial arts, and in the summer I go inline skating a few hours a week.

How did you get interested in computer security?

In senior high school there was a guy who planted a simple “logic bomb” in some of the school computers. A few other guys managed to “hack” supervisor rights in the school network. I got frustrated by the fact that some people with knowledge (although quite basic in those cases) about “hacking” could destroy and snoop around in computers as they wished. So I decided to learn more than them about it so I would be able to feel more in control of things. At the time I didn’t have a clue about how much there was to learn about security, but I’ve continued to learn ever since.

What operating system(s) do you use and why?

I use several different operating systems, but as a desktop system I prefer Windows XP since I think it has the best GUI (at least after a bit of tweaking). For doing experiments I have a wide range of operating systems and hardware in my private lab. I have most Windows versions, a few Linux distributions, FreeBSD, OpenBSD, AIX, HP/UX, Solaris, IRIX, and a couple of 2500-series and 2600-series Cisco routers, as well as some other stuff.

You are the author of various security tools, which one is your favorite creation?

Although I never wrote a completely stable version of Inzider – the port to process mapping tool – it’s one of my favourites since I had the idea for over a year before I wrote it and I tried many different approaches before finding one that worked. Another favourite is WinZapper – the security log editing tool – also because I had the idea for a long time and tried various approaches before finding one that worked. Both became the first tools capable of doing what they do (with the reservation that I don’t know if there were any others available in the “underground” before them). I really enjoy picking a new problem to solve and do lots of work trying to figure out a solution, running into other strange problems on the way.

What was it like being the technical editor of the “HackNotes Windows Security Portable Reference“?

It was fun and a new kind of experience for me. I usually read a lot of computer books (I own and have read about 250 or so this far) and I sometimes find small and large errors, have ideas of better ways to do things and so on. So it was really fun to be able to give that kind of input for a book before it was published. With a bit of humour I have to say that unfortunately there weren’t so many errors in this one even from the beginning as I would have liked. I guess I just enjoy finding errors and bugs and so on… 😉

Are there any books you can recommend to our visitors that are just getting into computer security?

There are many useful books and I think it’s hard to pick just one or a few since different books suite different persons and needs. There is however one book that I would like to recommend, although not technical. It’s called “Hackers: Crime in the Digital Sublime“, written by Paul A. Taylor. This book is much more well-balanced than other books I’ve read that aim to describe hackers. I think it should be mandatory reading for everybody who haven’t been actually talking to “real hackers” themselves but still want to work with security. It should also be mandatory reading for hackers themselves.

In your opinion, what are the most important things an administrator has to do in order to keep a network secure?

I’ve seen this question in lots of places and it usually is answered with a few more or less specific technical answers. Like “apply updates regularly”, “turn off services that aren’t necessary” and so on. I would like to point out some completely different things that I think applies to everybody involved in security. They aren’t necessarily the most important things, but I know they cause a lot of problems out there when done wrong.

  • Never overestimate your own knowledge and capability or underestimate the need for knowledge. There are lots of things to learn for all of us, we all make mistakes, we all have more or less of a misbalance in the weight we put on various aspects of security. Make sure you work hard to have a proper balance – not overemphasize some things and underemphasize or completely leave out others. Learn enough so you *really* know what you’re doing, learn at least some of what’s “under the hood” of programs you use etc. Check what you have just done – or even better – have someone else check what you have just done. Don’t just check from one point of view – for example, if you have made a configuration change then check that you did it correctly in itself, but also use some tool to make sure that the system actually works in the way you configured it to work. And never ever think that buying a security product can compensate for the lack of knowledge.
  • If you work at a technical level, then learn to work against the main goals of your organization. In some way your security work should be focused on making it possible for those goals to be fulfilled, usually through a chain of sub-goals. If you apply too little security bad things will happen, but if you apply too much security, or at the wrong places, you will spend time and money that could be spent on better things. Maximum security everywhere is almost never a main goal in itself, but that is too often forgotten. Learn this and you will get more respect from management people. Then they will listen more to what you say about the technology needs.
  • If you work at more of a management level, then learn never to underestimate the importance of details. No amounts of paperwork will make your systems and networks secure unless there is someone who is capable of performing, and actually performs, the final steps of securing them. Too many times I’ve heard people say the phrase “technology is the easy part, that’s no problem”, and ironically those people often have systems that look like swiss cheese – and they’re not even aware of it (guess why). Learn this and you will get more respect from the technical people. Then they will listen more to what you say about the management needs.
  • Never forget that if the users don’t understand security or don’t understand what you’re trying to accomplish, then your security work often is of no use, or at least of much less use than it could be. Make sure that people understand *why* they should do things in a certain way and are forbidden to do it in other ways. That will make them so much more motivated than if they are just given a long list of “don’t” points. Never make users feel afraid of you by making them feel bad about their mistakes or in any other way, because if you do, they’ll never come back to ask you for help when they have some kind of trouble – which will only make things worse.

Based on your experiences, do you find proprietary software or open source software to be more secure?

Personally I try not to think that way at all. My view is that people really don’t use software because it is secure – they use it because they have something they want done and the software helps them doing it. So the main thing is the functionality needed. Unfortunately, because some people will attack the software, we also need a proper level of security – but the main thing still is that people need software that can do the things they want done. If they have a need for either proprietary or open source software to fulfill those goals, then they should pick the one they need.

Also, the people who develop software usually don’t do so to make secure software – they want to earn money, or do something fun, or get the feeling that they have given something useful to society. Things like that. I don’t think anybody should be forced to develop either proprietary or open source software. They should be able to pick one according to their own goals.

Since I hold this view, I view security as something that has to, in a way, come in second hand. That doesn’t mean that security should be neglected or applied as an after-thought. It just means that *some* decisions rightfully are made *before* making decisions about security, most of the time, and by most people. One of these decisions is about proprietary / open source software. I also think that both kinds of software can have good security and both can have bad security. It depends on who develops the software, in which way it is developed, tested, supported, documented, and so on. There are many important variables other than proprietary / open source that can be changed in different ways to increase security without really affecting the other major goals of users and developers.

What do you see as the major problems in online security today?

I think it’s hard to pick just a few and I rather would like to think about how to minimize the problems. I wish more people would learn more about security. I also think that some software needs to be shipped with more secure defaults. For example, operating systems shouldn’t have a single open port by default. Mail clients should be much simpler in design – very few people really need anything more than a program that can send and receive plaintext mails with attached files (and of course it mustn’t be possible to open dangerous attachments with just a mouse-click). I would like to see much more simplicity in the interfaces to the “outside world” in software in general. Complexity is a huge problem if you want few vulnerabilities in software. But on the other hand, complexity isn’t really that much of a security problem as long as it isn’t exposed to input from a potential attacker.

What’s your take on the full disclosure of vulnerabilities?

I’m completely for full disclosure as long as some conditions are met. For example, the vendors must be given enough time to provide a patch before the vulnerability details are published. I also think that any example exploit code should be as harmless as possible, for example it shouldn’t give the attacker a remote shell, instead just pop up a window in the target computer or something similar. Of course there will probably be someone implementing something nasty anyway if a vulnerability is important enough, but there is no reason for the discoverer to do so. In general I think the publication of a new vulnerability from the part of the discoverer should be focused on providing the information needed by all people on the “good side”. That means no more of information, but also no less.

My personal view is that most people (but absolutely not all) who want full disclosure totally banned either lack the technical knowledge to understand how it is useful for the “good side”, or they feel that they don’t have the knowledge to protect themselves, and therefore start to over-emphasize removing the threat from the attackers rather than working on removing the vulnerabilities. Another symptom of that same thing is when people want to solve the security problem through more severe punishments for the attackers. Actual criminology research shows that the severity of punishment doesn’t correlate very well to the amount of crime committed – among other reasons since crimes generally aren’t committed after first doing a thorough cost-benefit analysis ;-). But when we humans feel that we’re loosing control we tend to try to solve the problem by playing more rough, ourselves threatening those we feel threatened by to scare them enough to leave us alone, and so on. Not by taking a step back and analyze why we’re losing control and how we can solve the problem in a clean and gentle way.

What are your plans for the future? Any exciting new projects? Maybe a book of your own?

Right now I’m thinking a lot about what to do. One general thing I would like to accomplish is to increase the awareness of security among people, and give them a good view of what security is all about. I don’t have any particular projects decided yet, but there’s no doubt that you’ll see more from me in the future. And writing a book of my own is definitely something I want to do.

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