The worst truism in information security

by alex_gaynor
Attackers just need one vulnerability, defenders need to be perfect

This may be the single most repeated truism in information security. Just this week, a colleague invoked this, with the quip that those of us who've chosen defense must be pretty dumb, given the challenge of that task, and the possibility of an easier career in offense. There's just one problem: it's not actually true, and it's harmful to reasoning about information security, particularly for non-practitioners.

This presentation of information security suggests a simple dichotomy, systems are either secure or insecure. And if any single vulnerability exists, a system is insecure. Since no system of any significant size is completely free of vulnerabilities, it must be that no secure systems exist, cue nihilism.

Skilled practitioners don't actually adopt this black and white, binary attitude. Instead, their approach could be more likened to economics. They ask questions like, "What are the costs to exploit this system?", "What skills are required to discover and exploit vulnerabilities?", "How valuable are the assets the systems protects?", "How can we use monitoring to give ourselves more opportunities to stop attackers?"

These questions orient us towards the idea that defenders win when they make compromising a system more expensive than it is profitable, not when they make it invulnerable. And this framing invites us to consider an array of valuable security activities that don't fit into a binary secure/not-secure narrative. For example:

None of these tactics remove or prevent vulnerabilities, and would therefore by rejected by a "defense's job is to make sure there are no vulnerabilities for the attackers to find" approach. However, these are all incredibly valuable activities for security teams, and lower the expected value of trying to attack a system.

Monitoring and incident response in particular defy this binary secure/insecure paradigm. They presuppose that exploitation is possible, and instead raise costs by forcing attackers to either be stealthier, which requires more time and greater skills, or be caught and stopped before the attack actually accomplishes their goals. Investments here flip the "defenders need to be perfect" truism on it's head, instead forcing attackers to be perfect, lest one mistake alert the defense of their presence.

Approaching security as economics highlights the importance of accurate threat modeling. If you overestimate your detection capability, or underestimate your attackers' resources or how they value your assets, you cede an advantage to them. It is always the case that a miscalibrated threat model adds risk, but in an economics approach to security, there's the possibility that misestimates will lead you to the conclusion that you have rigorously determined your system to be appropriately secure, while your attackers would describe it as anything but. There's no escaping the reality that if you plan for script kiddies and the GRU shows up you're going to have a bad time, so conservatism is a virtue1.

Finding, fixing, and preventing bugs are not the only jobs of a security team. The "attackers just need one vulnerability, defenders need to be perfect" "truism" of information security misleads people, by framing them as the only responsibility of a security team, and suggesting that anything short of perfection is worthless. A more accurate summary of information security might be: systems can have vulnerabilities, but as long as identifying vulnerabilities and exploiting them without detection is more expensive than the value of the assets the system protects, defenders are winning.

[1]This is particularly true when estimating the efficacy of exploit mitigations, where developers have a tendency to overestimate the challenges to bypassing them. The difficulty of exploiting a vulnerability should be empirically assessed with red-teaming, not guessed at.

Hi, I'm Alex. I'm currently at a startup called Alloy. Before that I was a engineer working on Firefox security and before that at the U.S. Digital Service. I'm an avid open source contributor and live in Washington, DC.