Security Through Obscurity

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Security through obscurity is a pejorative referring to a principle in security engineering, which attempts to use secrecy of design or implementation to provide security. A system relying on security through obscurity may have theoretical or actual security vulnerabilities, but its owners or designers believe that if the flaws are not known, then attackers will be unlikely to find them. The technique stands in contrast with security by design and open security, although many real-world projects include elements of several strategies.

Security through obscurity has never achieved engineering acceptance as an approach to securing a system, as it contradicts the principle of ‘keeping it simple.’ The United States National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) specifically recommends against security through obscurity in more than one document. Quoting from one, ‘System security should not depend on the secrecy of the implementation or its components.’

There is scant formal literature on the issue of security through obscurity. Books on security engineering will cite Kerckhoffs’ doctrine from 1883, if they cite anything at all. For example, in a discussion about secrecy and openness in ‘Nuclear Command and Control’: ‘[T]he benefits of reducing the likelihood of an accidental war were considered to outweigh the possible benefits of secrecy. This is a modern reincarnation of Kerckhoffs’ doctrine, first put forward in the nineteenth century, that the security of a system should depend on its key, not on its design remaining obscure.’ In the field of legal academia, Peter Swire has written about the trade-off between the notion that ‘security through obscurity is an illusion’ and the military notion that ‘loose lips sink ships’ as well as how competition affects the incentives to disclose.

The principle of security through obscurity was more generally accepted in cryptographic work in the days when essentially all well-informed cryptographers were employed by national intelligence agencies, such as the National Security Agency. Now that cryptographers often work at universities, where researchers publish many or even all of their results, and publicly test others’ designs, or in private industry, where results are more often controlled by patents and copyrights than by secrecy, the argument has lost some of its former popularity. An example is PGP released as source code, and generally regarded (when properly used) as a military-grade cryptosystem. The wide availability of high quality cryptography was disturbing to the US government, which seems to have been using a security through obscurity analysis to support its opposition to such work. Indeed, such reasoning is very often used by lawyers and administrators to justify policies which were designed to control or limit high quality cryptography only to those authorized by a given state.

Perfect or ‘unbroken’ solutions provide security, but absolutes may be difficult to obtain. Although relying solely on security through obscurity is almost always a very poor design decision, keeping secret some of the details of an otherwise well-engineered system may be a reasonable tactic as part of a defense in depth strategy. For example, security through obscurity may (but cannot be guaranteed to) act as a temporary ‘speed bump’ for attackers while a resolution to a known security issue is implemented. Here, the goal is simply to reduce the short-run risk of exploitation of a vulnerability in the main components of the system.

Security through obscurity can also be used to create a risk that can detect or deter potential attackers. For example, consider a computer network that appears to exhibit a known vulnerability. Lacking the security layout of the target, the attacker must consider whether to attempt to exploit the vulnerability or not. If the system is set to detect this vulnerability, it will recognize that it is under attack and can respond, either by locking the system down until proper administrators have a chance to react, by monitoring the attack and tracing the assailant, or by disconnecting the attacker. The essence of this principle is that raising the time or risk involved, the attacker is denied the information required to make a solid risk-reward decision about whether to attack in the first place.

A variant of this defense includes two layers of detection; both of which are kept secret but one is allowed to be ‘leaked.’ The idea is to give the attacker a false sense of confidence that the obscurity has been uncovered and defeated. An example of where this would be used is as part of a honeypot (a trap for hackers). In neither of these cases is there any actual reliance on obscurity for security; these are perhaps better termed obscurity bait in an active security defense. However, it can be argued that a sufficiently well-implemented system based on security through obscurity simply becomes another variant on a key-based scheme, with the obscure details of the system acting as the secret key value. There is a general consensus, even among those who argue in favor of security through obscurity, that security through obscurity should never be used as a primary security measure. It is, at best, a secondary measure; and disclosure of the obscurity should not result in a compromise.

In cryptography proper, the argument against security by obscurity dates back to at least Kerckhoffs’ principle, put forth in 1883 by Dutch linguist and cryptographer Auguste Kerckhoffs. The principle holds that design of a cryptographic system should not require secrecy and should not cause ‘inconvenience’ if it falls into the hands of the enemy. This principle has been paraphrased in several ways: System designers should assume that the entire design of a security system is known to all attackers, with the exception of the cryptographic key. Or, the security of a cryptographic system resides entirely in the cryptographic key. In the 1940s, American cryptographer Claude Shannon put it bluntly; ‘the enemy knows the system.’

The greater the number of points of compromise in a system, the greater the chance that an attack on one of those points of compromise exists, or will be developed. Systems which include secrets of design or operation which are also points of compromise are less secure than equivalent systems without these points of compromise if the effort required to obtain the vulnerability caused by the secret design or method of operation, and the effort to exploit this vulnerability is less than the effort required to obtain the secret key. The security level of the system is then reduced to the effort required to exploit the vulnerability. For example, if somebody stores a spare key under the doormat, in case they are locked out of the house, then they are relying on security through obscurity. The theoretical security vulnerability is that anybody could break into the house by unlocking the door using that spare key. Furthermore, since burglars often know likely hiding places, the house owner will experience greater risk of a burglary by hiding the key in this way, since the effort of finding the key is likely to be less effort to the burglar than breaking in by another means, such as through a glass window. The owner has in effect added a vulnerability—the fact that the entry key is stored under the doormat—to the system, and one which is very easy to guess and exploit.

In the past, several algorithms, or software systems with secret internal details, have seen those internal details become public. Accidental disclosure has happened several times, for instance in the notable case of GSM confidential cipher documentation being contributed to the University of Bradford neglecting to impose the usual confidentiality requirements. Furthermore, vulnerabilities have been discovered and exploited in software, even when the internal details remained secret. Taken together, these and other examples suggest that it is difficult or ineffective to keep the details of systems and algorithms secret. Linus’s law, that ‘many eyes make all bugs shallow,’ also suggests improved security for algorithms and protocols whose details are published. More people can review the details of such algorithms, identify flaws, and fix the flaws sooner. Proponents of this viewpoint expect that the frequency and severity of security compromises will be less severe for open than for proprietary or secret software.

Operators and developers/vendors of systems that rely on security by obscurity may keep the fact that their system is broken secret to avoid destroying confidence in their service or product and thus its marketability, and this may amount to fraudulent misrepresentation of the security of their products. Instances have been known, from at least the 1960s, of companies delaying release of fixes or patches to suit their corporate priorities rather than customer concerns or risks. Application of the law in this respect has been less than vigorous, in part because vendors almost universally impose terms of use as a part of licensing contracts in order to disclaim their apparently existing obligations under statutes and common law that require fitness for use or similar quality standards.

Software which is deliberately released as open source experienced a security debacle in the late 1980s; for example, the Morris worm of 1988 spread through some obscure — though widely visible to those who looked — vulnerabilities. An argument sometimes used against open-source security is that developers tend to be less enthusiastic about performing deep reviews as they are about contributing new code. Such work is sometimes seen as less interesting and less appreciated by peers, especially if an analysis, however diligent and time-consuming, does not turn up much of interest. Combined with the fact that open-source is dominated by a culture of volunteering, the argument goes, security sometimes receives less thorough treatment than it might in an environment in which security reviews were part of someone’s job description.

On the other hand, just because there is not an immediate financial incentive to patch a product, does not mean there is not any incentive to patch a product. Further, if the patch is that significant to the user, having the source code, the user can technically patch the problem themselves. These arguments are hard to prove. However, research indicates that open-source software does have a higher flaw discovery, quicker flaw discovery, and quicker turn around on patches. For example, one study reports that Linux source code has 0.17 bugs per 1000 lines of code while non-Open-Source commercial software generally scores 20-30 bugs per 1000 lines.

Security through minority refers to a variant of the basic approach that relies on the properties (including whatever vulnerabilities might be present) of a product which is not widely adopted, thus lowering the prominence of those vulnerabilities (should they become known) against random or even automated attacks. This approach has a variety of names, ‘minority’ being the most common. Others are ‘rarity,’ ‘unpopularity,’ ‘scarcity,’ and ‘lack of interest.’ This variant is most commonly encountered in explanations of why the number of known vulnerability exploits for products with the largest market share tends to be higher than a linear relationship to market share would suggest, but is also a factor in product choice for some large organizations.

Security through minority may be helpful for organizations who will not be subject to targeted attacks, suggesting the use of a product in the long tail. However, finding a new vulnerability in a market leading product is likely harder than for obscure products, as the low hanging fruit vulnerabilities are more likely to have already turned up, which may suggest these products are better for organizations who expect to receive many targeted attacks. The issue is further confused by the fact that new vulnerabilities in minority products cause all known users of that (perhaps easily identified) product to become targets. With market leading products, the likelihood of being randomly targeted with a new vulnerability remains greater. The whole issue is closely linked with, and in a sense depends upon, the widely used term ‘security through diversity’ – the wide range of ‘long tail’ minority products is clearly more diverse than a market leader in any product type, so a random attack will be less likely to succeed.

The argument for security through minority runs counter to a principle observed in nature, in predator-prey scenarios. There, the term ‘safety in numbers,’ or ‘safety of the herd’ are observed principles that would argue against the ‘security through minority’ strategy. However, in an extinction event it would be advantageous to fill a minor niche from which to emerge after the previously dominant species are affected (e.g. mammals after dinosaurs). ‘Security through obsolescence’ is, for example, using obsolete network protocols (e.g. IPX instead of TCP/IP) to make attacks from the Internet difficult. ATMs often use X.25 networks.

There are conflicting stories about the origin of the term ‘security through obscurity.’ Fans of MIT’s Incompatible Timesharing System (ITS) say it was coined in opposition to Multics users down the hall, for whom security was far more an issue than on ITS. Within the ITS culture the term referred, self-mockingly, to the poor coverage of the documentation and obscurity of many commands, and to the attitude that by the time a tourist figured out how to make trouble he’d generally got over the urge to make it, because he felt part of the community.

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