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Why Isn't Cyberspace More Secure?


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cyberspace security illustration

Credit: Celia Johnson

Evaluating governmental actions—and inactions—toward improving cyber security and addressing future challenges.

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CACM Administrator

The following letter was published in the Letters to the Editor in the February 2011 CACM (http://cacm.acm.org/magazines/2011/2/104382).
--CACM Administrator

In his Viewpoint "Why Isn't Cyber-space More Secure?" (Nov. 2010), Joel F. Brenner erroneously dismissed the value of making software manufacturers liable for defects, with this misdirected statement: "Deciding what level of imperfection is acceptable is not a task you want your Congressional representative to perform." But Congress doesn't generally make such decisions for non-software goods. The general concept of "merchantability and fitness for a given application" applies to all other goods sold and likewise should be applied to software; the courts are available to resolve any dispute over whether an acceptable level of fitness has indeed been met.

In no other commercial realm do we tolerate the incredible level of unreliability and insecurity characteristic of today's consumer software; and while better engineering is more challenging and the software industry could experience dislocations as its developers learn to follow basic good engineering practices in every product they bring to market, that lesson does not excuse the harm done to consumers from not employing basic good engineering practices.

L. Peter Deutsch
Palo Alto, CA

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AUTHOR'S RESPONSE:

The challenge is in writing standards that would improve security without destroying creativity. "Basic good engineering" is not a standard. A "merchantability and fitness" standard works for, say, lawnmowers, where everyone knows what a defect looks like. It doesn't work for software because defining "defect" is so difficult, and the stuff being written is flying off the shelves; that is, it's merchantable. It's also sold pursuant to enforceable contracts. So while courts are indeed available to resolve disputes, they usually decide them in favor of the manufacturer. Deutsch and I both want to see more secure and reliable software, but, like it or not, progress in that direction won't be coming from Congress.

Joel F. Brenner
Washington, D.C.


CACM Administrator

The following letter was published in the Letters to the Editor in the May 2011 CACM (http://cacm.acm.org/magazines/2011/5/107681).
--CACM Administrator

I regret that Joel F. Brenner responded to my letter to the editor "Hold Manufacturers Liable" (Feb. 2011) concerning his Viewpoint "Why Isn't Cyberspace More Secure?" (Nov. 2010) with two strawman arguments and one outright misstatement.

Brenner said software "is sold pursuant to enforceable contracts." As the Viewpoint "Do You Own the Software You Buy?" by Pamela Samuelson (Mar. 2011) made clear, software is not "sold." Every EULA insists software is licensed and only the media on which it is recorded are sold; a series of court decisions, of which the Vernor v. Autodesk decision Samuelson cited is the most recent and one of the most conclusive, have upheld this stance.

This mischaracterization by Brenner is one of the keys to understanding how manufacturers of such shoddy goods get off essentially scot-free. If software were actually sold, the argument that it should be exempt from the protections of the Uniform Commercial Code would be much more difficult to maintain, in addition to other benefits thoroughly discussed elsewhere (including by Samuelson in her column).

Even though EULAs have been held enforceable, such a determination comes at the expense of the consumer. Almost without exception, EULAs have the effect of stripping the consumer of essentially all reasonable rights and expectations, compared with other goods and services. And while click-through and shrink-wrap EULAs have indeed been found to be enforceable, many reasonable people (including me) believe it should not be the case, since the vast majority of consumers do not read these "contracts" and do not understand their consequences. Brenner apparently does not consider them a significant problem.

Finally, Brenner simply reiterated his assertion that "Congress shouldn't decide what level of imperfection is acceptable." I agree. There are basic consumer protections that apply to all other goods, as embodied in the UCC. Neither a further act of Congress nor detailed specifications of product construction are required to give consumers the right to expect, say, a stove, properly used and maintained, will not burn down their house. The corresponding right of freedom from gross harm, like the other protections of the UCC, is not available for software, though it and they should be; Brenner apparently disagrees.

I emphasized good engineering practices in my February letter not because (as Brenner seems to believe) I thought they were sufficient to guarantee a reasonable level of product quality, but because they are well-established means toward the end of meeting the basic standards of non-harm and reliability taken as a given for all other products. In any case, Brenner did not say why he thinks a different process should be used for setting functional safety and reliability standards for software than for other consumer goods. Simply asserting "software is different" is not a reasoned argument.

L Peter Deutsch
Palo Alto, CA

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AUTHOR'S RESPONSE:

Thanks to Deutsch for correcting my error. Software is of course licensed rather than sold. As Deutsch says, this is why UCC product-liability standards for purchased goods haven't improved software quality. But his point strengthens my argument. I was explaining, not defending, the status quo, which is lamentable precisely because liability is weak. I cannot fathom why Deutsch thinks I'm indifferent to higher engineering standards for software. They represent the only basis on which a liability regime can be founded, even for licensed products.

Joel F. Brenner
Washington, D.C.


CACM Administrator

The following letter was published in the Letters to the Editor in the March 2011 CACM (http://cacm.acm.org/magazines/2011/3/105325).
--CACM Administrator

In his Viewpoint "Why Isn't Cyberspace More Secure?" (Nov. 2010), Joel F. Brenner said that in the U.K. the customer, not the bank, usually pays in cases of credit-card fraud. I would like to know the statistical basis for this claim, since for transactions conducted in cyberspace the situation in both the U.K. and the U.S. is that liability generally rests with the merchant, unless it provides proof of delivery or has used the 3-D Secure protocol to enable the card issuer to authenticate the customer directly. While the rates of uptake of the 3-D Secure authentication scheme may differ, I have difficulty believing that difference translates into a significant related difference in levels of consumer liability.

The process in the physical retail sector is quite different in the U.K. as a result of the EMV, or Europay, MasterCard, and VISA protocol, or "Chip & PIN," though flaws in EMV and hardware mean, in practice, the onus is till on the bank to demonstrate its customer is at fault.

Alastair Houghton
Fareham, England

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AUTHOR'S RESPONSE:

The U.K. Financial Services Authority took over regulation of this area November 1, 2009, because many found the situation, as I described it, objectionable. In practice, however, it is unclear whether the FSA's jurisdiction has made much difference. While the burden of proof is now on the bank, one source (see Dark Reading, Apr. 26, 2010) reported that 37% of credit-card fraud victims get no refund. The practice in the U.S. is not necessarily better but is different.

Joel F. Brenner
Washington, D.C.


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