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Are we tired of easy yet?

© August 2006 Anthony Lawrence

I wish this morning's security issues were unexpected:

What these are about is exploiting bad wireless drivers in both Windows and Mac notebooks. The articles blame it on OS vendors cobbling in code written by hardware folks. They say:

"The main problem here is that device drivers are a funny mix of stuff put together by hardware and software developers, and these guys are often under the gun to produce the code that will power products that the manufacturer is often in a hurry to get to market."

OK, but isn't the larger issue "ease of use"? Why is the default for wireless to go looking for networks to join? To make it "easy" for the user, of course. We wouldn't want dumb users having to think about whether they WANTED to search for networks - nope, that would be "hard".

OK, yeah, there are security exploits that have nothing to do with ease of use. But it seems to me that too many do flow from that mindset: automatic connections, zeroconf, no thinking, nothing to set, just let the computer do its own thing. Passwords? Too hard to remember, let's have single sign on. Confirmation of possibly dangerous actions? Let's just do it..

Aaarghh. Are we sick of this yet?

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Thu Aug 3 08:43:22 2006: 2356   TonyLawrence

Maybe we aren't.

I'm reminded of setting up a wireless network in a home office last year.. as I do automatically, I secured it with a WEP password and shut off broadcasting.

The owner didn't like that. "When people come to visit, I want them to be able to connect without a hassle".

I asked "And you want your competitors sitting outside in the street to connect just as easily?"

Well, no, of course not. But..

I'm sick of "easy".

Thu Aug 3 08:48:12 2006: 2357   TonyLawrence

Another thought: Apple deserves lumps for not fixing this immediately (it's not in their latest patch which came out today) but Microsoft is probably going to be affected more by this if an exploit does reach "the wild". The reason is this note:

"As far as we know, these will not be delivered via the Microsoft Update tool. You will need to download and install them manually unless your system vendor (the folk who make your laptop) provides an automated tool for you. Before you download and install these, we strongly suggest you talk to your system vendors and see if they are coming out with custom versions of the patches. "

That's too complicated for too many people, so they won't do it, and will remain vulnerable. Apple is its own vendor, so (eventually) the patches will be in their security updates.

Fri Aug 4 01:05:15 2006: 2362   drag

This was one of the arguements for having open source drivers in Linux, especially wireless.

Now wireless devices are increadably complex beasts.. You have the same issue with bluetooth as well as wifi. In fact Bluetooth stuff is usually much worse. You may have it in your phone, most people will end up with a phone that does eventually. It's turned on by default usually and anybody can circumvent the laughable security of these devices.

A modern sort of pick pocket.

But the point about the Linux wireless drivers is that with open source drivers the kernel developers do code reviews of stuff before it's added to the kernel, which would catch most of the issues. Also since the Linux kernel tries to share as much code between devices as possible and it's open for people to use (provided that they license the driver GPL) then a fix with one driver will often fix a whole host of devices.

The closed source drivers often use Windows code in them.. they just kinda strip it down and write a shim to support Linux. Ndiswrapper-based wifidrivers do this (also a commercial varient called linuxtent (I think)). Nvidia propriatory video drivers do this also. As well as madwifi Linux drivers for 'Atheros' devices do this.

All of them contain 'black box' code and customers are expected to accept them without question.

I would expect that it would get similar for OS X and Apple. They possibly may not be allowed or are unable to change the driver to fix the security problem, depending on the licensing sceme they choose. It may depend on the wifi device maker to fix it.

But back on topic, ya ease of use usually means very complex code to deal with corner cases. The more complex the code teh more likely there is something that is wrong. The easier it is to use the less users will learn and the less likely they are to have the capabilities to protect themselves against problems.

Another classic example of ease of use screwing end users over is why the hell did Microsoft allow *.exe files to be executed out of email attatchments?

Why does MS allow files to be set to executable based on what the last 3 letters of the name are?

AND Windows hides the filename extensions BY DEFAULT.

The user has one way to determine executable files and that one way is hidden. The only tool they have is the mouse pointer. The UI is designed specificly so that a user instinctively double clicks on a file simply to find out more information about it. Is it a image file? Is it a program, a script or a word file? The icon of the file is a indication, but it's not reliable and it often doesn't mean anything to the average user.

And even if you unhide the extensions then there are more then 45 executable filename extensions combinations.
*.exe is obvious.. *.bat is less.
But what about:
*.pot or *.shb or *.pif or *.msi

Plus even with all the different IE vunerabilities you can't even trust HTML code or jpeg images anymore. They can contain harmfull code to exploit a vunerability or relay information back or cause a redirect and automaticly download some sort of worm.

How can a common user deal with that?

I suppose this stuff is why people use OpenBSD.


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