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The "Bug-Free Software" fallacy

For patching the unpatchable

About 20 years ago, I worked with a fellow who proudly told me that he had once written a flawless piece of software. He kept its inch-thick line printer listing as a shrine in his cubicle. I never asked him for details, because he got angry when people questioned his judgement on computing. After all, he had once been in a panel discussion with Grace Hopper!

I have my own Grace Hopper stories, but today's interesting panel discussion took place earlier in December at the 2013 ACSAC in New Orleans. Roger Schell, a luminary in the annals of cyber security, declared that 1980s techniques had indeed created "bug-free software."

Roger Schell is wrong.

So-called "bug-free software" is simply "too hard to patch" software. Instead of being bulletproof, the software is like a fragile gift padded for shipment. We protect such things by adjusting the world outside: physical security, connection facilities, procedures, and so on. We use boxes, bubble wrap, and duct tape to secure the software.

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Multics was flawless?

Multics logo

Last week I participated in a very geeky panel discussion about a now-defunct standard for computer system security: the TCSEC. I showed some charts and diagrams about costs, error rates, and adoption of government-sponsored programs for evaluating computer security. During the panel, some audience members made the following claim:

"After its evaluation, Multics never needed a security patch."

I admit I find this hard to believe, and it's not consistent with my own Multics experience. However, most of my Multics experience predated the evaluation. So I ask: does anyone know if Multics had a security patch after its B2 TCSEC evaluation?

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Six Minute History of Information Security

I have been reading the ACM's Model Curriculum on Information Technology (a prototype "IT" major) with a special eye towards the information security coverage. I've been teaching information security courses and recently developed a major in the area.

The curriculum provides minimum times to cover major topics in the field, like 3 hours to cover "Fundamental Aspects" including the "history" of information assurance and security. After factoring out the other dozen 'learning outcomes' for that topic, one is left with six minutes to cover the "history" of information security.

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