Geekonomics: The Real Cost of Insecure Software

Posted on by Ben Rothke

My full review of Geekonomics: The Real Cost of Insecure Software is on Slashdot

First the good news — in a fascinating and timely new book Geekonomics: The Real Cost of Insecure Software, David Rice clearly and systematically shows how insecure software is a problem of epic proportions, both from an economic and safety perspective. Currently, software buyers have very little protection against insecure software and often the only recourse they have is the replacement cost of the media. For too long, software manufactures have hidden behind a virtual shield that protects them from any sort of liability, accountability or responsibility. Geekonomics attempts to stop them and can be deemed the software equivalent of Unsafe at Any Speed. That tome warned us against driving unsafe automobiles; Geekonomics does the same for insecure software. 

Now the bad news — we live in a society that tolerates 20,000 annual alcohol-related fatalities (40% of total traffic fatalities) and cares more about Brittany Spears' antics than the national diabetes epidemic. Expecting the general public or politicians to somehow get concerned about abstract software concepts such as command injection, path manipulation, race conditions, coding errors, and myriad other software security errors, is somewhat of a pipe dream. 

Geekonomics is about the lack of consumer protection in the software market and how this impacts economic and national security. Author Dave Rice considers software consumers to be akin to the proverbial crash test dummy. This combined with how little recourse consumers have for software related errors, and lack of significant financial and legal liability for the vendors, creates a scenario where computer security is failing. 

Most books about software security tend to be about actual coding practices. Geekonomics focuses not on the code, but rather how insecurely written software is an infrastructure problem and an economic issue. Geekonomics has 3 main themes. First — software is becoming the foundation of modern civilization. Second — software is not sufficiently engineered to fulfill the role of foundation. And third — economic, legal and regulatory incentives are needed to change the state of insecure software. 

The book notes that bad software costs the US roughly $180 billion in 2007 alone (Pete Lindstrom's take on that dollar figure). Not only that, the $180 billion might be on the low-end, and the state of software security is getting worse, not better, according the Software Engineering Institute. Additional research shows that 90% of security threats exploit known flaws in software, yet the software manufacturers remain immune to almost all of the consequences in their poorly written software. Society tolerates 90% failure rates in software due to their unawareness of the problem. Also, huge amount of software problems entice attackers who attempt to take advantage of those vulnerabilities. 

One reason software has significant security vulnerabilities as noted in chapter 2, is that software manufacturers are primarily focused on features, since each additional feature (whether they have real benefit or not) offers a compelling value proposition to the buyer. But on the other side, a lack of software security functionality and controls imposes social costs on the rest of the populace. 

Since regulations and the like are likely years or decades away, chapter 7 notes that short of litigation, contracts are the best legal option software buyers can use to leverage in address software security problems. Unfortunately, most companies do not use this contractual option to the degree they should which can benefit them. 

Overall, Geekonomics is an excellent book that broaches a subject left unchartered for too long. The book though does have its flaws; its analogies to physical security (bridges, cars, highways, etc.) and safety events don't always coalesce with perfect logic. Also, the trite title may diminish the seriousness of the topic. As the book illustrates, insecure software kills people, and I am not sure a corny book title conveys the importance of the topic. But the book does bring to light significant topics about the state of software, from legal liability, licensing of computer programmers, consumers rights, and more, that are imperatives. 

It is clear the regulations around the software industry are inevitable and it is doubtful that Congress will do it right, whenever they eventually get around to it. Geekonomics shows the effects that such lack of oversight has caused, and how beneficial it would have been had such oversight been there in the first place. 

To someone reading this review, they may get the impression that Geekonomics is a polemic against the software industry. To a degree it is, but the reality is that it is a two-way street. Software is built for people who buy certain features. To date, security has not been one of those top features. Geekonomics notes that software manufacturers have little to no incentive to build security into their products. Post Geekonomics, let's hope that will change.

Geekonomics will create different feelings amongst different readers. The consumer may be angry and frustrated. The software vendors will know that their vacation from security is over. It's finally time for them to get to work on fixing the problem that Geekonomics has so eloquently written about.

Ben Rothke

Senior Information Security Manager, Tapad

data security

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