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The false sense of security

Last year, we wrote about ‘security’ blogs and websites that actually cause insecurity. This time, we look at three reasons for a false sense of security.

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Three reasons for a false sense of security

Often, private users are focused on “secure configuration.” They ask whether their setup, tool, or hardware is “secure.” We discussed this in “What is ‘secure’?.” Their mindset seems to be like shown in the picture below: There is a toggle switch somewhere, and you just have to turn on some security and privacy.

An image showing a switch to toggle privacy or security.
Some people assume that security and privacy are binary properties. However, you can't simply turn on some security and privacy. (πŸ” Zoom in)

The main reason for this mindset could be the omnipresent focus on technology when it comes to information security. However, as discussed in other articles, technology is only a small subset of information security.

In the following, we present three reasons for a false sense of security when it comes to configuring technology to make it “more secure.”

Reason 1: Legacy configuration and outdated security tips

If you look for “hardening guides” or “secure configuration” on the internet, you find hundreds of articles, online assessment tools, and recommendations.

What is the problem?

Guides and recommendations are snapshots in time. The next software update could remove parameters that were recommended, or good practices change since there are new cryptographic algorithms available. You configure something as written in a guide while not improving anything in reality. You think that something is more secure now, but this is wrong.

Three examples

  1. Legacy HTTP response headers: Many guides recommend setting the HTTP response headers “X-Frame-Options” and “X-Xss-Protection.” Some people tell you that their website is more secure since they set these headers. In reality, all major browsers don’t support “X-Xss-Protection.” Web browsers ignore the header. You don’t get any additional security by setting this header. “X-Frame-Options” can be set as a directive of the Content Security Policy (Level 2), which is supported by all modern web browsers.
  2. Contradictory TLS recommendations: Some people still recommend TLS 1.0 to 1.2. Others updated their advice to TLS 1.2 only. Then, there are already people recommending TLS 1.2 and 1.3. If you look at TLS curves, some recommend “prime256v1” and “secp384r1.” Others tell you to use “secp521r1” or “X25519.” Looking at cipher suites, this gets even more complicated. If you compare these recommendations with current good practices and look at parameters supported by web browsers, you see that some suggestions are outdated or unsupported.
  3. Legacy OpenSSH parameters: Some tools still recommend to set parameters like “Protocol.” In reality, these parameters aren’t supported anymore by current versions of OpenSSH. The same is true for the “-o” flag when generating private keys.

How to solve it

The right approach is to read the documentation of things you want to configure. For instance, read man ssh to see the supported parameters of your OpenSSH version. Some tools come with built-in checks for their configuration. For example, use sshd -T, nginx -t, or apachectl -t to check the configuration files. In some cases, these checks show which parameters are in use. Remove any unused parameters.

Be aware of the parameters you configure. Understand their meaning. Don’t blindly set any parameters. Define your own threat model.

Reason 2: No threat model

Some people aimlessly implement tips from the internet. They configure their Android smartphone according to some guides, then they harden their desktop operating system a little bit, and finally, they install some web browser plugins. In the end, they changed something without ever checking whether their setup covers their use cases.

What is the problem?

Different people have diverse hardware, software, and use cases. For instance, some people only use Apple devices. Others only have an Android smartphone. Some people use their devices for entertainment only; others use them at work. Most guides only reflect particular use cases of their authors. There may be relevant use cases that aren’t covered by the guides. The obvious problem is that you forget something because no guide reflects precisely your combination of hardware, software, and use cases.

Three examples

  1. Out-of-scope use cases: You look for a guide that covers server hardening. You implement every part of it; however, the guide covers static content configuration only while you use a content management system. You think everything is secure now, but you forgot to lock down the database used by the CMS.
  2. The forgotten risk: You want to secure your Android smartphone. As mentioned in a guide, you install F-Droid, Firefox, and some browser plugins. Finally, you install some apps that mention “security” in their description. Seven days later, you lose your smartphone. Later, somebody quickly reads all of your end-to-end encrypted messages, views all of your private photos, and accesses your e-mails. The root cause was the missing part about full-disk encryption and the risk of losing physical access to your smartphone.
  3. The wrong assumption: You switch to an instant messenger because somebody says, “it’s secure.” You manage to turn on end-to-end encryption. While you think your messages are “secure” now, the server stores all of your data and metadata in cleartext. The recommendation was only focused on encrypting messages in transit and assumed that the server is always trustworthy.

How to solve it

Define your own threat model as there is no other solution. You are the only person knowing which hardware and software you use. You know all of your use cases. If you only do things explained in some guides, you likely forget something.

Reason 3: No checks and no monitoring

Many people configure their hardware and software precisely once. Then, this configuration is left unchanged for an extended period.

What is the problem?

If you never check whether your configuration actually works (or still works), you don’t know it. You assume that everything works as expected. We showed this in our article on the LineageOS-based /e/ operating system: People just thought that there is no Google anymore; however, many of them didn’t check it.

Three examples

  1. The attacker was already there: Our favorite example is “server security.” Nearly all guides on server security only show you how to configure it once. That’s all. They mostly never mention that monitoring, alerting, and reacting are essential for server security. This may originate from the wrong assumption that you can prevent every type of attack. Detecting ongoing attacks is as crucial as preventing them, though.
  2. Data leaks everywhere: If you look for privacy guides, you likely come across articles recommending VPNs for privacy. While VPNs can help you securing network traffic under certain conditions, you never know whether all of your traffic uses the VPN provider as a proxy.
  3. No control at all: Some guides tell you about “taking back control” by installing specific operating systems and changing some configuration. At the same time, most of your hardware components are likely proprietary, and there may be other hardware or software components connected to a network. If you don’t check this, you never learn about it.

How to solve it

Monitor all of your network traffic, especially remotely-located hardware like servers in data centers. Detecting attackers is as necessary as preventing attacks. Furthermore, you need to check if your configuration works as expected. Don’t assume itβ€”check it.

Summary

Hopefully, you got an idea of why blindly configuring your hardware and software without a threat model or checking anything results in a false sense of security.

We update our guides from time to time to address the issue of giving outdated advice. However, we don’t know your threat model or uses cases, too.

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