Security wish list for 2019

by alex_gaynor

About 3 years ago I wrote about five projects I thought were very important for advancing the state of computer security. Looking back at that old post, I was reasonably pleased to find that all are having real positive impacts and none turned out to be busts. So I decided to take a stab at writing down the things I want to see happen in 2019, in the hopes that the universe will provide a few of them. I've attempted to make each of these be something that could realistically be accomplished in a year, and I've include some success criteria for each one. They are in no particular order.

Rust breakthrough

I'm very bullish on Rust as a major component of our collective strategy for dealing with the scourge of memory corruption, as I've written about before. I've been very encouraged by Rust's growth to date. My hope is that 2019 is a break out year for Rust, with significant adoption in a domain I'm passionate about, systems software traditionally written in C/C++: browsers, OS kernels, hypervisors, and other similar software that's responsible for implementing a strong security boundary.

Success criteria:

  • Adoption of Rust as an official development language by another major OS and browser.
  • Public talks/writing from teams that adopted Rust in these domains describing the value it added from a security perspective.

Security key breakthrough

Like the last point, I'm a big believer in the power of security keys (U2F) to address the scourge of phishing. I want more consumer awareness of security keys, more large deployments at companies, and more products to support them.

Success criteria:

  • Google Accounts, Facebook, and Twitter switching from the legacy u2f.js API to webauthn.
  • Every major browser ships webauthn in a stable release. NFC security key support on iOS.
  • 25% drop in cost for keys (currently $10 for USB only, $17 for NFC, $25 for BLE+NFC). This would mostly be accomplished by removing the need for BLE keys, via iOS support for NFC keys, but cost reduction in other variants would also be valuable.
  • My bank to offer security key support.
  • Just once when talking to someone about security, I'd like them to have heard of security keys before I spoke to them.

TLS 1.3 to the moon

The IETF shipped the final TLS 1.3 spec in 2018. In 2019 I want adoption to take off. TLS 1.3 makes a number of security improvements over previous versions: better key handling for session resumption and removal of poor ciphersuites (such as CBC mode ciphers and RSA key exchange). It also makes performance improvements. Further, in 2018 all the major browsers announced they were planning on retiring TLS 1.0 and 1.1 in 2019, I hope that continues according to plan.

In addition to the security improvements, this will serve as proof of our ability to iterate, improve, and deprecate web standards.

Success criteria:

  • TLS 1.3 jumps from 5.7% of TLS connections in Firefox to 15%.
  • TLS 1.0+1.1 drop from 1.2% of TLS connections in Firefox to less than 0.1%.

Who builds secure software?

The most secure email provider (Gmail) and consumer operating system (ChromeOS) are built by an incredibly powerful surveillance apparatus. Commercial surveillance is every bit as much a part of security as government surveillance. Our industry, and society more broadly, should have a conversation about how it came to be that some of our most secure tools have this potentially dangerous provenance. Is it possible to fund secure software development without a mostly-unrelated spigot of money?

Success criteria:

  • Op-Eds, papers, and blog posts discussing to what extent the current situation is a problem, how can we better fund secure software development, and whether this is just a small piece of a broader conversation on monopolist behavior in technology or if security is a distinct challenge.

Urgency around exploitation

Right now vulnerabilities (almost certainly memory corruption!) in cell phones are being exploited to surveil human rights activists in the Middle East and a nutritional epidemiologist investigating the impact of soda consumption on obesity. Yes, you read that correctly. These are just two of what are many many stories of horrific abuses of software.

We should feel the same urgency around this exploitation as we do around an attacker who has breached our network and is exfiltrating data. When a company is suffering an ongoing breach they delay feature work, and re-prioritize engineers and other resources to security. We need to feel that same urgency around the ongoing crisis that is exploitation of these vulnerabilities to attack users.

Success criteria:

  • At least one major platform explicitly acknowledges this crisis, and announces a plan to address it systemically, with deliverables starting in 2019.
  • Substantial increase in the difficult of exploitation from that platform, based on analysis independent security researchers.

User agency first

Software is getting more complex at a rapid clip. If you're not responsible for building it (and take a healthy interest in things you don't work on), it's fair to say that it's literally impossible to know how any software actually works. Worse though, it's rapidly becoming impossible to know what it is doing, much less how. I've lost track of the number of times I've had to answer "how did Facebook know to show me an ad for that?"

The ultimate purpose of security is to build systems that are worthy of our trust. How can users' trust mean anything if they can't understand what software is doing on their behalf? In 2019, I'd like to see a new focus on making our products better understood, both by communicating better, and by simplifying their behavior.

Success criteria:

  • Op-Eds, papers, and blog posts discussing how well software is living up to its responsibility to act on users' behalves.
  • At least one major product announces a substantial functionality change as a result.

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