On Security: Part 000

October 2020 ยท 5 minute read

There is a thought experiment I like to do as a kind of warm-up when thinking about security. Think of something in your life that is protected by security–it can be something physical: paper money, your home, or an important object or heirloom. It can be information: a secret like your banking password. It can even be a person or other living being. Now, imagine the universe 2.6 billion years from now. Where is that thing? What state is it in? Is it still valuable in the same way, or will its value have changed or disappeared?

The purpose of this thought experiment is to notice that the concept of security is not only, or even mostly, about protecting stuff. Rather, at least half of security is about understanding the human relationship that we call value–identifying not just what is valuable, but looking deeper at the particular characteristics of value in a given context. It is these contextual characteristics of value that guide the definition of security in that context. Security is appropriately protecting value1. In a bank robbery, security might include putting dye packs in with the money being stolen, one goal of which is to destroy the value of what is taken. In a home security system, however, it would not be appropriate to include incendiary devices that set the house on fire in the event of a break-in.

The system designer has several responsibilities with respect to security:

  1. To identify the characteristics of value in the context of the system.
  2. To identify a set of likely threats to that value.
  3. To implement efficient2 controls that guard against the threats, ideally by raising the cost of an attack higher than the likely reward.

Notice that “preventing bad things from happening” is too general to appear on that list. That is, when bad things happen, they may or may not represent negligence on the part of the system designer. For instance, a bank robbery doesn’t necessarily represent a failure of the bank’s security officer. If the security officer implements controls that forsee the likelihood of that event–such as procedures to minimize the risk that anyone will get hurt and insurance for any monetary losses–the basic fact that a robbery happens doesn’t reflect one way or another on the quality of the system. Likewise, if a bank was seized by an invading army, that would not be a failure of its security officer. These examples are meant to show that good security can’t be identified simply by looking at whether or not bad things happen over time. Instead, security should be judged by whether its definition of value is appropriate and whether its controls are reasonable. Another way to look at it is to notice that the security system designer has a finite budget. The quality of her work is in her ability to spend the budget wisely, not in whether the budget is sufficient.

When we build systems for ourselves, we’re responsible for both sides of that equation– deciding what resources to spend on security and on how to spend them. These resources are most often not money. For instance, I would characterize my decision to limit my time using corporate social networks as, in part, a security decision. I recognize a value in being able to construct my personality “out of range,” as it were, of the capabilities of those systems to subject me to social pressure. The threat that I anticipate in those spaces is that my feelings can be manipulated in fairly predictable ways. It’s not that hard for social networks to pull me in and me feel insignificant in my own life–it’s happened several times already. But that’s where lots of my friends are, and it’s where lots of potential friends are, so staying away from those spaces has a cost for me. Neither choice–staying away from corporate social networks or engaging with them– is better or worse than the other in any provable way; I don’t know and can’t control which one would work out best in the long run. What I can do, following the points above, is to try to figure out what I value, and adopt the posture that seems most likely to protect it.

In my last post, on privacy, I claimed that the privacy controls offered by social networks are not really helpful at protecting valuable kinds of privacy. I think there is an analogous point to make about security, not exclusive to social networks. When we think about security only in terms of controls–passwords, locks, vaults, accounts–we risk confusing mechanisms of protecting value with definitions of value. We assume that because a system lets us choose a secret password, and guarantees that no one else will be able to log in to our account, that access to our account is the thing worth protecting. But if we decided that value instead lay in things like “being fairly compensated for allowing our data to be used in planet-scale AI training datasets,” or “not being subjected to social science experiments,” or “securing our government from the influence of anyone who can buy an ad or write a bot,” the security controls that we would design would probably go beyond exclusive access to a social network account.

As with the privacy post, this post is #000 for a reason. There’s a lot to be said about computer security, much of it interesting, complicated, and strange. All of that knowledge represents the how of security, and it’s only relevant after you’ve decided what to secure.


  1. Once you have the observation that “security is appropriately protecting value,” you can use it in reverse as well–every existing security system is a statement about what its designers believed valuable. ↩︎

  2. The efficiency of a control is in the relationship between the cost of implementing the control and the value that it protects. ↩︎