Jen Easterly recently made a very important speech at Carnegie Mellon University. Jen is the Director of the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA). She is well-liked and known in the technology industry generally and has worked hard to address many of the difficult issues facing the United States concerning cybersecurity. In her comments, she tackles the thorny issue of the quality of software code that is produced—both private and open-source code. The creation of increased liability for software manufacturers may be a game-changer. I’ve pasted her entire speech below because it is that good and worth reading in full. Here are her comments:
Unsafe at Any CPU Speed:
The Designed-in Dangers of Technology and What We Can Do About It
Good morning. Thank you to President Jahanian for that warm introduction and to everyone for joining me today on this Monday morning. It’s wonderful to start the week off with this incredible community.
I can’t think of a more fitting location for this discussion than Pittsburgh, a city built on innovation, imagination, and technological transformation; and Carnegie Mellon University, one of the world’s most renowned educational institutions, home to one of our nation’s top undergraduate computer science programs and top engineering programs, but also, to so much more. Let me share a few of my own favorites:
- The first smile in an email was created by research Professor Scott Fahlman, which launched the emoticon craze
- CAPTCHAs—or completely automated public Turing tests to tell computers and humans apart— (how many of you knew what that stood for?) were developed here by Professor Luis von Ahn and his colleagues, used to help prevent cybercrime
- Wireless research conducted at CMU laid the foundation for now ubiquitous wi-fi
- CMU is home to the nation’s first robotics lab; and of course, home to the Software Engineering Institute, the first Federal Lab dedicated to software engineering. SEI established the first Computer Emergency Response Team, or CERT, in response to the Morris worm—that became the model for CERTs around the globe, and of course was a key partner in the creation of US-CERT in 2003, the precursor to CISA’s Cybersecurity Division.
But the partnership between CMU and CISA goes well beyond technical capability – to what I consider the most important aspect of technology – People. The CISA team is full of amazing CMU alumni like Karen Miller who leads our vulnerability evaluation work and Dr. Jono Spring, who is on the front lines of our vulnerability management work – both are here with me today.
Finally, I wanted to come here because CISA and CMU share a common set of values—collaboration, innovation, inclusion, empathy, impact, and service. And of course, a shared passion for our work.
So, now that you know why I am here, I want to start with a story.
At 2:39 pm on a chilly but sunny Saturday, just six miles off the coast of South Carolina, an F-22 fighter jet from Langley Air Force Base fired a Sidewinder air-to-air missile to take down a balloon—the size of three school buses—that had drifted across the United States. The deliberate action came after a tense public standoff with Beijing and intense media scrutiny about the Chinese “spy balloon.”
The response and surrounding attention to the issue, reinforced for me a major challenge we face in the field of cybersecurity—raising national attention to issues much less visible but in many ways far more dangerous. Our country is subject to cyber intrusions every day from the Chinese government, but these intrusions rarely make it into national news. Yet these intrusions can do real damage to our nation—leading to theft of our intellectual property and personal information; and even more nefariously: establishing a foothold for disrupting or destroying the cyber and physical infrastructure that Americans rely upon every hour of every day—for our power, our water, our transportation, our communication, our healthcare, and so much more. China’s massive and sophisticated hacking program is larger than that of every other major nation – combined. This is hacking on an enormous scale, but unlike the spy balloon, which was identified and dealt with, these threats more often than not go unidentified and undeterred.
And while a focus on adversary nations—like China and Russia—and on cybercriminals is important, I would submit to you that these cyber-intrusions are a symptom, rather than a cause, of the vulnerability we face as a nation. The cause, simply put, is unsafe technology products. And because the damage caused by these unsafe products is distributed and spread over time, the impact is much more difficult to measure. But like the balloon, it’s there.
It’s a school district shut down; one patient forced to divert to another hospital, a separate patient forced to cancel a surgery; a family defrauded of their savings; a gas pipeline shutdown; a 160-year-old college forced to close its doors because of a ransomware attack.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, as many—if not most—attacks go unreported. As a result, it’s enormously difficult to understand the collective toll these attacks are taking on our nation or to fully measure their impact in a tangible way.
The risk introduced to all of us by unsafe technology is frankly much more dangerous and pervasive than the spy balloon, yet we’ve somehow allowed ourselves to accept it. As we’ve integrated technology into nearly every facet of our lives, we’ve unwittingly come to accept as normal that such technology is dangerous-by-design:
We’ve normalized the fact that technology products are released to market with dozens, hundreds, or thousands of defects, when such poor construction would be unacceptable in any other critical field.
We’ve normalized the fact that the cybersecurity burden is placed disproportionately on the shoulders of consumers and small organizations, who are often least aware of the threat and least capable of protecting themselves.
We’ve normalized the fact that security is relegated to the “IT people” in smaller organizations or to a Chief Information Security Officer in enterprises, but few have the resources, influence, or accountability to incentivize adoption of products in which safety is appropriately prioritized against cost, speed to market, and features.
And we’ve normalized the fact that most intrusions and cyber threats are never reported to the government or shared with potentially targeted organizations, allowing our adversaries to re-use the same techniques to compromise countless other organizations, often using the same infrastructure.
This pattern of ignoring increasingly severe problems is an example of the “normalization of deviance,” a theory advanced by sociologist Diane Vaughan in her book about the ill-fated decision to launch the space shuttle Challenger in 1986. Vaughan describes an environment in which “people become so accustomed to a deviant behavior that they don't consider it as deviant, despite the fact that they far exceed their own rules for elementary safety.”
When it comes to unsafe technology, we have collectively become accustomed to a deviance from what we would all think would be proper behavior of technology manufacturers, namely, to create safe products. Dr. Richard Cook, a software engineer and system safety researcher popularized the complementary idea of an “accident boundary”—that is, the point of maximum risk that organizations can tolerate beyond which you have an “accident,” like an intrusion. Organizations try to move their operations away from the accident boundary. In cybersecurity, we might see them conduct employee awareness training for phishing, deploy multi-factor authentication, or buy expensive security tools. But what if the very design of technology products caused our operations to always be right up against the accident boundary through no fault of our own? What if no reasonable amount of money, or employee training could fix that, and an accident was inevitable because of the design of the product? It’s as if we’ve normalized the deviant behavior of operating at the bleeding edge of the accident boundary. This is the current state of the technology industry—and we need to make a fundamental shift if we want to do better. And we must do better. So, the question is: How? What if we changed how we think about cyber-attacks and where to focus our attention? What if we thought more about not just a superficial “root cause,” but the multiple contributing factors to a breach? Fortunately, history proves to us that we can—and indeed must—change the way we collectively value safety over other market incentives like cost, features, and speed to market. For the first half of the 20th century, conventional wisdom held that car accidents were solely the fault of bad drivers. This is very similar to the way we often blame a company today that has a security breach because they did not patch a known vulnerability. But, what about the manufacturer that produced the technology that required so many patches in the first place? We seem to be misplacing the responsibility for security and compounding it with a lack of accountability. Today, we can be confident that any car we drive has been manufactured with an array of standard safety features—seatbelts, airbags, anti-lock brakes, and so on. And that’s because we know they work—quite simply, these features prevent bad things from happening. They save lives. Indeed, cars today are designed to be as safe as possible—for example, to absorb kinetic energy by crumpling and thus raise the occupants' chances of survival. Cars undergo rigorous testing and crashworthiness analysis to validate these design elements. No one would think of purchasing a car today that did not have seatbelts or airbags included as a standard feature, nor would anyone accept paying extra to have these basic security elements installed.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the technology that underpins our very way of life. We find ourselves blaming the user for unsafe technology. In place of building in effective security from the start, technology manufacturers are using us, the users, as their crash test dummies—and we’re feeling the effects of those crashes every day with real-world consequences. This situation is not sustainable. We need a new model.
A model in which we can place implicit trust in the safety and integrity of the technology products that we use every hour of every day, technology which underpins our most critical functions and services.
A model in which responsibility for technology safety is shared based upon an organization’s ability to bear the burden and where problems are fixed at the earliest possible stage—that is, when the technology is designed rather than when it is being used.
A model that emphasizes collaboration as a prerequisite to self-preservation and a recognition that a cyber threat to one organization is a safety threat to all organizations.
In sum, we need a model of sustainable cybersecurity, one where incentives are realigned to favor long-term investments in the safety and resilience of our technology ecosystem, and where responsibility for defending that ecosystem is rebalanced to favor those most capable and best positioned to do so.
What would such a model look like?
It would begin with technology products that put the safety of customers first. It would rebalance security risk from organizations—like small businesses—least able to bear it and onto organizations—like major technology manufacturers—much more suited to managing cyber risks.
To help crystalize this model, at CISA, we’re working to lay out a set of core principles for technology manufacturers to build product safety into their processes to design, implement, configure, ship, and maintain their products. Let me highlight three of them here:
First, the burden of safety should never fall solely upon the customer. Technology manufacturers must take ownership of the security outcomes for their customers.
Second, technology manufacturers should embrace radical transparency to disclose and ultimately help us better understand the scope of our consumer safety challenges, as well as a commitment to accountability for the products they bring to market.
Third, the leaders of technology manufacturers should explicitly focus on building safe products, publishing a roadmap that lays out the company's plan for how products will be developed and updated to be both secure-by-design and secure-by-default.
So, what would this look like in practice?
Well, consumer safety must be front and center in all phases of the technology product lifecycle—with security designed in from the beginning—and strong safety features, like seatbelts and airbags— enabled right out of the box, without added costs. Security-by-design includes actions like transitioning to memory-safe languages, having a transparent vulnerability disclosure policy, and secure coding practices. Attributes of strong security-by-default will evolve over time, but in today’s risk environment sellers of software must include in their basic pricing the types of features that secure a user’s identity, gather and log evidence of potential intrusions, and control access to sensitive information, rather than as an added, more expensive option.
In short, strong security should be a standard feature of virtually every technology product, and especially those that support the critical infrastructure that Americans rely on daily. Technology must be purposefully developed, built, and tested to significantly reduce the number of exploitable flaws before they are introduced into the market for broad use. Achieving this outcome will require a significant shift in how technology is produced, including the code used to develop software, but ultimately, such a transition to secure-by-default and secure-by-design products will help both organizations and technology providers: it will mean less time fixing problems, more time focusing on innovation and growth, and importantly, it will make life much harder for our adversaries.
In this new model, the government has an important role to play in both incentivizing these outcomes and operationalizing these principals. Regulation—which played a significant role in improving the safety of automobiles—is one tool, but—importantly—it’s not a panacea.
One of the most effective tools the government has at its disposal to drive better security outcomes is through its purchasing power. The Biden Administration has already taken important steps toward this goal in establishing software security requirements for federal contractors and undertaking an effort to adopt security labels for connected consumer devices like baby monitors and webcams. It will continue to pursue this goal through the implementation of the initiatives called for in the President’s May 2021 cybersecurity executive order, such as developing federal acquisition regulations around cybersecurity.
The government can also play a role in shifting liability onto those entities that fail to live up to the duty of care they owe their customers. Returning to the automotive analogy: the liability for defective auto parts now generally rests with the producer that introduced the defect even if an error by the driver caused the defect to manifest. This was reflected in class action litigation against the Takata Corporation, where the company’s defective airbags tragically caused over 30 deaths after often minor collisions. Consumers and businesses alike expect that products purchased from a reputable provider will work the way they are supposed to and not introduce inordinate risk. To this end, government can work to advance legislation to prevent technology manufacturers from disclaiming liability by contract, establishing higher standards of care for software in specific critical infrastructure entities, and driving the development of a safe harbor framework to shield from liability companies that securely develop and maintain their software products and services. While it will not be possible to prevent all software vulnerabilities, the fact that we’ve accepted a monthly “Patch Tuesday” as normal is further evidence of our willingness to operate dangerously at the accident boundary.
In addition, the government can play a useful signaling role in acknowledging the good work that technology manufacturers are doing today because they recognize that owning the security outcomes of their customers is the right thing to do to ensure the safety of those customers.
Encouragingly, an increasing number are taking important steps in the right direction—
from adopting secure programming practices to enabling strong security measures by default for their customers. I’ll highlight a few.
With respect to secure programming, it’s been a relatively well-kept secret for many years, but around two-thirds of known software vulnerabilities are a class of weakness referred to as “memory safety” vulnerabilities which introduce certain types of bugs related to how computer memory is accessed. Certain programming languages—most notably, C and C++— lack the mechanisms to prevent coders from introducing these vulnerabilities into their software. By switching to memory safe programming languages—like Rust, Go, Python, and Java—these vulnerabilities can be eliminated. Java, of course, was invented by CMU alumnus James Gosling. As one example, Google recently announced that “Android 13 is the first Android release where a majority of new code added to the release is in a memory safe language” – specifically Rust – and that “there have been zero memory safety vulnerabilities discovered in Android’s Rust code.” That’s a remarkable result.
And it’s not just Google. Mozilla, who created Rust, has a project to integrate Rust into Firefox. Amazon Web Services has also begun building critical services in Rust—noting not just security benefits but also time and cost savings.
The nonprofit Internet Security Research Group is another good example. Work done under their Prossimo project led to support for using Rust in the Linux kernel, an important milestone given that the Linux kernel is at the heart of today’s internet. If the Internet Security Research Group can have such success on a limited budget, think about what big corporations can do.
Now consider some examples of security defaults: Apple says that 95% of iCloud users enable MFA. Metrics for other services are hard to come by, but Twitter reports that fewer than 3% of its users use any form of MFA. Microsoft reports that only about a quarter of its enterprise customers use MFA and that only about one third of their administrator accounts use MFA. While the Twitter and Microsoft stats are disappointing, the companies are doing a service by helpfully releasing data on MFA adoption publicly.
Apple’s impressive MFA numbers aren’t due to random chance. By making MFA the default for user accounts, Apple is taking ownership for the security outcomes of their users. By providing radical transparency around MFA adoption, these organizations are helping shine a light on the necessity of security by default. More should follow their lead—in fact, every organization should demand transparency regarding the practices and controls adopted by technology providers and then demand adoption of such practices as basic criteria for acceptability before procurement or use. Manufacturers must be transparent about their processes and their quality and safety. They must run transparent vulnerability disclosure policies, giving legal protection to security researchers who report vulnerabilities, letting those researchers talk publicly about their findings, and taking care to address root causes of those vulnerabilities.
Here at CMU, the Software Engineering Institute has done some great work on this, including by publishing the CERT Guide to Coordinated Vulnerability Disclosure. Other community efforts like disclose.io have done a good job laying out template language for vulnerability disclosure policies which companies can adopt.
Dropbox is one strong example of mandating transparency from vendors. In 2019, they overhauled their vendor contracts to include security requirements, holding vendors to the same level of security that Dropbox holds itself to. This includes actions like requiring vendors and their employees to use MFA, allowing Dropbox to perform security testing of the vendors’ systems, and requiring vendors to publish vulnerability disclosure policies with legal safe harbor. They even open-sourced their contract requirements so that other organizations could adopt and modify them. I encourage other organizations to follow Dropbox’s example and start demanding transparency from their vendors. At CISA, we’ve been working through ways that we can support radical transparency in technology software in products. For example, we’re focused on advancing the use of Software Bill of Materials, or “SBOMs,” the idea that software should come with an inventory of open-source components and other code dependencies. Effective use of an SBOM can help an organization understand whether a given vulnerability affects software being used in their assets and provide greater confidence in a manufacturer’s software development practices. We must applaud and encourage any, and all progress, while also recognizing the need to do more. Because as we introduce more unsafe technology to our lives, we increase our risk and our exposure exponentially—and this threat environment will only get more complex. While we play our role from a government perspective, and technology companies increasingly embrace their role in putting consumer safety first, universities have an important role to play in achieving safe technology products. Indeed, one of the main reasons I wanted to come to CMU is because of the strength of your computer science and software engineering programs—because this is where the next generation of software engineers and innovators are learning their craft. For the professors here this morning, you are responsible for the education of some of our nation’s brightest young minds and for the knowledge they bring into the working world. If that world is going to be one where the technology products that we all rely on are safe, it must be a world where our new graduates show up to work with fluency in, and a bias towards, memory safe programming languages. A world where incentives, tools, and training are readily available to help organizations migrate key libraries to memory safe languages. Imagine that by 2030, memory safety vulnerabilities are almost non-existent. Attackers are unable to find and use memory safety vulnerabilities, dramatically raising the cost of an attack, and stopping all the terrible things I talked about earlier? How did we get there? I think a major part of the answer to that question is that “we figured out how to make memory safe languages ubiquitous within universities nationally, and globally.” I know that sounds like a lofty goal but let’s talk about some possible steps to get there. I’ll highlight four key areas for your consideration.
First, could you move university coursework to memory safe languages?
- As an industry, we need to start containing, and eventually, rolling back the prevalence of C/C++ in key systems and putting a real emphasis on safety.
- How can we tackle this challenge? What if we start a formal program – with material funding, incentives for professors, goals, an executive sponsor, and metrics – to migrate course materials to use memory safe languages? This includes ensuring that C and C++, when taught, are treated as dangerous, regardless of how pervasive they are in existing codebases.
- In that vein, I’d like to give kudos here to CMU for offering CS 112— an introductory programming course taught in Python taken by many students across the university. Introducing students to the benefits of programming in a memory safe language is a key step forward.
Second, could you weave security through all computer software coursework?
- There’s often a knowledge, skills, and experience gap between new hires and what is needed at their first jobs. Some of the larger companies have security training for new hires to ensure they understand how to code safely, always with an intelligent adversary in mind. Meanwhile, just one out of the top twenty undergraduate programs in computer science requires a security course as a graduation requirement. Which one? UC San Diego. As it stands, at most schools, a student can earn a computer science degree without learning the fundamentals of safety and security. I urge every university to make taking a security course a graduation requirement for all computer science students. Better still, don’t just make security a separate class, but make it part of every class.
- I’d like to recognize CMU for being a leader here, integrating security for its core classes. Freshmen taking CS 122, for instance, learn about memory safety bugs like buffer overflows. I’d love to see how we can help standardize this kind of education into curricula across the country.
- Civil, mechanical, and electrical engineers all take a substantial course load around thinking critically about safety: from understanding tolerances and safety margins to rigorously analyzing failures, safety is a critical part of engineering education. Skills for reliably and securely engineering computer software are critical parts of national security. We must work together to instill these skills into the engineers who will manufacture our future technology.
- CMU also deserves credit for its focus on software as an engineering discipline. CMU researchers have made significant contributions to advancing the state of the art in software engineering and programming language design. I challenge you to think about how to go further in making that work accessible to all students and integrating it deeper into the standard computer science curriculum.
Third, how can you help the open-source community?
- Are there opportunities to migrate CMU sponsored open-source projects to memory safe languages? To require all published research code to be written in memory safe languages? To build research opportunities and hands-on classroom learning around enhancing the safety of key open-source projects? The open-source commons is a key foundation of our software ecosystem and universities are well suited to invest in making sure that foundation is up to code.
And finally, could you find a way to help all developers and all business leaders make the switch?
- Can we create better tooling for migrating to memory safe code from legacy code bases? Are there ways to make formal verification of software safety easy to deploy at scale? These questions have drawn research attention for decades, but they are only growing in importance as software is further embedded into the very foundations of our society. More tactically, you can help produce clear technical guidance—in partnership with CISA—on how developers can radically improve the quality and safety of their code.
- You can partner also with your colleagues here in the business school on management guidance to help business leaders understand what it takes to reinforce a culture of embracing safety and security as a matter of product quality.
These are big challenges, but ones that deserve our full attention. Steps taken today at this university and universities around the country can help spur an industry-wide change towards memory safe languages and add more engineering rigor to software development which in turn, will help protect all technology users. It’s critical that students have a strong bias to build safety into every system, which will pay dividends in the long run.
Finally, to all the students in the room.
Given the catastrophic costs of cyber-attacks affecting American businesses, governments, and citizens, we need future leaders like you to find ways to turbocharge the transformation to memory safe systems, and more broadly to systems that we know to be secure by design.
There are many ways you can help solve these challenges. Maybe you go work at a tech company—or even start your own—and write memory safe code, focused on advancing the principles of security we discussed today. Remember that you should take pride in the safety of the code you write—think of it as “part of your brand” as an excellent software engineer. And maybe you take what you learn today and help educate your fellow students on security and encourage your peers to write memory safe code.
Or maybe you decide to come work with us at CISA. We have several CMU alums that did just that. We need talented individuals like you all to help build our team as we continue to increase our capabilities, and most importantly, to help us forge a new approach around technology product safety. My team is here today, and I’d encourage you to stop by their table to talk with them if you want to learn more about working at CISA. One common value we share with you all is that we all put our heart into our work.
As we started with a story, I want to end with one, though this is less a story than a tale—a cautionary one at that.
Imagine a world where none of the things we talked about today come to pass, where the burden of security continues to be placed on consumers, where technology manufacturers continue to create unsafe products or upsell security as a costly add-on feature, where universities continue to teach unsafe coding practices, where the services we rely on every day remain vulnerable. This is a world that our adversaries are watching carefully and hoping never changes.
Because this is a world where another unprovoked invasion of a peaceful country by another much more powerful adversary—an adversary that has watched and learned from the endless missteps of Russia in its criminal war against Ukraine—might very well be coupled with the explosion of multiple U.S. gas pipelines; the mass pollution of our water systems; the hijacking of our telecommunications systems; the crippling of our transportation nodes—all designed to incite chaos and panic across our country and deter our ability to marshal military might and citizen will.
Such a scenario of attacks against our critical infrastructure in the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is unfortunately not terribly far-fetched, but it is one we can prevent, if we come together, collectively as a nation, across our businesses and across our universities, to put our heart into the hard work of achieving safe, secure, and resilient infrastructure for the American people.
Thank you again for the opportunity to speak with you today; I look forward to continuing the conversation with Professor Mayer and hearing your thoughts.
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