Tag Archives: infosec

Cybersecurity Is Very Important

Post Syndicated from Bozho original https://techblog.bozho.net/cybersecurity-is-very-important/

A few months ago an essay titled “Cybersecurity is not very important” appeared. The essay is well written and interesting but I’d like to argue against its main point.

And that is actually hard – the essay has many good points, and although it has a contrarian feel, it actually isn’t saying anything outrageous. But I still don’t agree with the conclusion. I suggest reading it (or skimming it) first before continuing here, although this article is generally self-sufficient.

I agree with many things in the essay, most importantly that there is no 100% protection and it’s all about minimizing the risk. I also agree that cybersecurity is a complex set of measures that span not only the digital world, but he physical one as well. And I agree that even though after watching a few videos from DEF CON, BlackHat or CCC, one feels that everything is fundamentally broken and going to live in the mountains is the only sane strategy to survive an impending digital apocalypse, this is not the case – we have a somewhat okayish level of protection for the more important parts of the digital world. Certainly exploitable, but not trivially so.

There are, though, a few main claims that I’d like to address:

  • There has not been any catastrophic cybersecurity event – the author claims that the fact that there was no digital Pearl Harbor or 9/11 suggests that we’ve been investing just the right amount of effort in cybersecurity. I don’t think that’s a fair comparison. Catastrophic events like that cost human lives as an immediate result of a physical action. No digital event can cause immediate loss of human life. However, it can cause indirect loss of human life, and it probably has already – take a famous data breach in an extramarital affair dating site – do we know how much people were killed in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia because infidelity (or homosexuality) was exposed? How many people died because hospitals were victims of ransomware? How many people died when the Ukranian power grid was attacked, leaving 20% of of Kyiv without power and therefore without heat, light or emergency care? What about the (luckily unsuccessful) attempt to sabotage a Saudi Arabia petro-chemical plant and cause an explosion? There are many more of these events, and they are already a reality. There are no visible explosions yet, which would make it easier to compare them to Pearl Harbor or 9/11, but they are serious and deadly nonetheless. And while natural disasters, road incidents and other issues claim more victims, there isn’t a trivial way to calculate the “return of life on investment”. And isn’t a secure charity for improving hurricane protection in third world nations better than one that gets hacked and all of its funds get stolen?
  • People have not adopted easy security measures because they were minor inconveniences – for example 2-factor authentication has been around for ages, but only recently we began using it. That is true, of course, but the reason for that might not be that it has been mostly fine to not have 2FA so far, but that society hasn’t yet realized the risks. Humans are very bad at intuitively judging risk, especially when they don’t have enough information. Now that we have more information, we are slightly better at estimating that, yes, adding a second factor is important for some systems. Security measures get adopted when we realize the risk, not only when there is more of it. Another reason people have not adopted cybersecurity measures is that they don’t know about them. Because the area is relatively recent, expertise is rare. This discrepancy between the ubiquity of information technology and the lacks of technical expertise (not to mention security expertise) has been an issue for a long time.
  • The digital world plays too small a role in our world when we put things in perspective – humans play a small role in the world if you put them in a big enough perspective, that doesn’t mean we are not important. And the digital world is playing an increasingly important role in our world – we can’t that easily continue to claim that cybersecurity is not important. And overall, the claim that so far everything has been (almost) smooth sailing can’t be transformed into the argument that it is going to be the same, only with gradual improvement over time. If IT is playing an exponentially more important role (and it is), then our focus on information security can’t grow linearly. I know you can’t plot these things on a graph without looking stupid, but you get the gist.
  • We have managed to muddle through without too much focus on cybersecurity – yes, we have. But we will find it increasingly harder to do so. Also, we have successfully muddled through many eras of human history because we have done things wrong (For example the Maya civilization collapsed partly because they handled the the environment wrong). Generally, the fact that something hasn’t gone terribly wrong is a bad argument that we are doing fine. Systemic issues get even more entrenched while on the surface it may look like we are successfully muddling through. I’m not saying that is certainly the case for cybersecurity, but it might very well be.

While arguing with the author’s point is an interesting task, it doesn’t directly prove the point that cybersecurity is indeed important.

First, we don’t have good comparisons of estimates of the cost – to the economy and to human life – of investment in cybersecurity as opposed to other areas, so I don’t think we can claim cybersecurity is not important. There are, for example, estimates of the cost of a data breach, and it averages several million dollars. If you directly and indirectly lose several million dollars with a likelihood of 30% (according to multiple reports), I guess you should invest a few hundred thousands.

Second, it is harder to internalize the risk of incidents in the digital world compared to those in the physical world. While generally bad at evaluating risk, I think the indirection that the digital world brings, contributes negatively to our ability to make risk-based decisions. The complexity of the software complicates things even further – even technical people can’t always imagine the whole complexity of the systems they are working with. So we may not feel cybersecurity is important even though facts and figures show otherwise.

But for me the most important reason for the importance of cybersecurity is that we are currently laying a shaky foundation for our future world. Legacy software, legacy protocols and legacy standards are extremely hard to get rid of once they are ubiquitous. And if they are insecure by design, because they are not built with security in mind, there is no way that software that relies on them can be secure.

If we don’t get cybersecurity right soon, everything that relies on the foundations that we build today will be broken. And no, you can’t simply replace your current set of systems with new, more secure ones. Organizations are stuck with old systems not because they don’t want to get new and better ones, but because it’s hard to do that – it involves migration, user training, making sure all edge cases are covered, informing customers, etc. Protocols and standards are even hard to change – see how long it took for TLS 1.3 to come along, for example. But network standards still have vulnerabilities that don’t have good mitigation (or didn’t have until recently) – take an SS7 attack on a mobile network, or ARP spoofing, or BGP hijacking.

If we don’t agree that cybersecurity is very important, future technology will be based on an insecure layer that it will try to fix with clumsy abstractions. And then at some point everything may collapse, at a moment when we are so dependent on it, that the collapse will be a major disruption in he way humanity operates. That may sound futuristic, but with technology you have no option but to be futuristic. We must build systems today that will withstand the test of time. And this is already very hard – maybe because we didn’t think cybersecurity is important enough.

I’m not saying we should pour millions into cybersecurity starting tomorrow. But I’d be happy to see a security mindset in everyone that works with technology as well as in everyone that takes decisions that involve technology. Not paranoid, but security conscious. Not “100% secure or bust”, but taking all known protection measures.

Cybersecurity is important. And it will be even more important in he upcoming decades.

The post Cybersecurity Is Very Important appeared first on Bozho's tech blog.

Protecting JavaScript Files (From Magecart-Style Attacks)

Post Syndicated from Bozho original https://techblog.bozho.net/protecting-javascript-files-from-magecart-attacks/

Most web pages now consist of multiple JavaScript files that are included in various ways (via >script< or in some more dynamic fashion, bundled and minified or not). But since these scripts interact with everything on the page, they can be a security risk.

And Magecart showcased that risk – the group attacked multiple websites, including British Airways and Ticketmaster, and stole a few hundred thousand credit card numbers.

It is a simple attack where attacker inserts a malicious javascript snippet into a trusted javascript file, collects credit card details entered into payment forms and sends them to an attacker-owned website. Obviously, the easy part is writing the malicious javascript; the hard part is getting it on the target website.

Many websites rely on externally hosted assets (including scripts) – be it a CDN, or a dedicated asset server (as in the case of British Airways). These externally hosted assets may be vulnerable in several ways:

  • Asset servers may be less protected than the actual server, because they are just static assets, what could go wrong?
  • Credentials to access CDN configuration may be leaked which can lead to an attacker replacing the original source scripts with their own
  • Man-in-the-middle attacks are possible if the asset server is misconfigured (e.g. allowing TLS downgrade attack)
  • The external service (e.g. CND) that was previously trusted can go rogue – that’s unlikely with big providers, but smaller and cheaper ones are less predictable

Once the attackers have replaced the script, they are silently collecting data until they are caught. And this can be a long time.

So how to protect against those attacks? A typical advice is to introduce a content security policy, which will allow scripts from untrusted domains to be executed. This is a good idea, but doesn’t help in the scenario where a trusted domain is compromised. There are several main approaches, and I’ll summarize them below:

  • Subresource integrity – this is a browser feature that lets you specify the hash of a script file and validates that hash when the page loads. If it doesn’t match the hash of the actually loaded script, the script is blocked. This sounds great, but has several practical implications. First, it means you need to complicate your build pipeline so that it calculates the hashes of minified and bundled resources and inject those hashes in the page templates. It’s a tedious process, but it’s doable. Then there are the dynamically loaded scripts where you can’t use this feature, and there are the browsers that don’t support it fully (Edge, IE and Safari on mobile). And finally, if you don’t have a good build pipeline (which many small websites don’t), a very small legitimate change in the script can break your entire website.
  • Don’t use external services – that sounds straightforward but it isn’t always. CDNs exist for a reason and optimize your site loading speeds and therefore ranking, internal policies may require using a dedicated asset server, sometimes plugins (e.g. for WordPress) may fetch external resources. An exception to this rule is allowed if you somehow sandbox the third party script (e.g. via iframe as explained in the link above)
  • Secure all external servers properly – if you can do that, that’s great – upgrade the supported cipher suites, monitor for 0days, use only highly trusted CDNs. Regardless of anything, you should obviously always strive to do that. But it requires expertise and resources, which may not be available to every company and every team.

There is one more scenario that may sound strange – if an attacker hacks into your main application server(s), they can replace the scripts with whatever they want. It sounds strange at first, because if they have access to the server, it’s game over anyway. But it’s not always full access with RCE – might be a limited access. Credit card numbers are usually not stored in plain text in the database, so having access to the application server may not mean you have access to the credit card numbers. And changing the custom backend code to collect the data is much more unpredictable and time-consuming than just replacing the scripts with malicious ones. None of the options above protect against that (as in this case the attacker may be able to change the expected hash for the subresource integrity check)

Because of the limitations of the above approaches, at my company we decided to provide a tool to monitor your website for such attacks. It’s called Scriptinel.com (short for Script Sentinel) and is currently in early beta. It’s mainly targeted at small website owners who can’t get any of the above 3 points, but can be used for sophisticated websites as well.

What it does is straightforward – it scans a given URL, extracts all scripts from it (even the dynamic ones), and starts monitoring them for changes with periodic requests. If it discovers a change, it notifies the website owner so that they can react.

This means that the attacker may have a few minutes to collect data, but time is an important factor here – this is not a “SELECT *” data breach; it relies on customers using the website. So a few minutes minimizes the damage. And it doesn’t break your website (I guess we can have a script to include that blocks the page if scriptinel has found discrepancies). It also doesn’t require changes in the build process to include hashes. Of course, such a reactive approach is not perfect, especially if there is nobody to react, but monitoring is a good idea regardless of whether other approaches are used.

There is the issue of protected pages and pages that are not directly accessible via a GET request – e.g. a payment page. For that you can enter your javascript files individually, rather than having the tool scan the page. We can add a more sophisticated user journey scan, with specifying credentials and steps to reach the protected pages, but for now that seems unnecessary.

How does it solve the “main server compromised” problem? Well, nothing solves that perfectly, as the attacker can do changes that serve the legitimate version of the script to your monitoring servers (identifying them by IP) and the modified scripts to everyone else. This can be done on the compromised external asset servers as well (though not with leaked CDN credentials). However this implies the attacker knows that Scriptinel is used, knows the IP addresses of our scanners, and has gained sufficient control to server different versions based on IP. This raises the bar significantly, and can even be made impossible to pull off if we regularly change the IP addresses in a significantly large IP range.

Such functionality may be available in some enterprise security suites, though I’m not aware of it (if it exists somewhere, please let me know).

Overall, the problem is niche, but tough, and not solving it can lead to serious data breaches even if your database is perfectly protected. Scriptinel is a simple to use, good enough solution (and one that’s arguably better than the other options).

Good information security is the right combination of knowledge, implementation of best practices and tools to help you with that. And I maybe Scriptinel is one such tool.

The post Protecting JavaScript Files (From Magecart-Style Attacks) appeared first on Bozho's tech blog.

Let’s stop talking about password strength

Post Syndicated from Robert Graham original https://blog.erratasec.com/2018/04/lets-stop-talking-about-password.html

Picture from EFF — CC-BY license

Near the top of most security recommendations is to use “strong passwords”. We need to stop doing this.

Yes, weak passwords can be a problem. If a website gets hacked, weak passwords are easier to crack. It’s not that this is wrong advice.

On the other hand, it’s not particularly good advice, either. It’s far down the list of important advice that people need to remember. “Weak passwords” are nowhere near the risk of “password reuse”. When your Facebook or email account gets hacked, it’s because you used the same password across many websites, not because you used a weak password.

Important websites, where the strength of your password matters, already take care of the problem. They use strong, salted hashes on the backend to protect the password. On the frontend, they force passwords to be a certain length and a certain complexity. Maybe the better advice is to not trust any website that doesn’t enforce stronger passwords (minimum of 8 characters consisting of both letters and non-letters).

To some extent, this “strong password” advice has become obsolete. A decade ago, websites had poor protection (MD5 hashes) and no enforcement of complexity, so it was up to the user to choose strong passwords. Now that important websites have changed their behavior, such as using bcrypt, there is less onus on the user.

But the real issue here is that “strong password” advice reflects the evil, authoritarian impulses of the infosec community. Instead of measuring insecurity in terms of costs vs. benefits, risks vs. rewards, we insist that it’s an issue of moral weakness. We pretend that flaws happen because people are greedy, lazy, and ignorant. We pretend that security is its own goal, a benefit we should achieve, rather than a cost we must endure.

We like giving moral advice because it’s easy: just be “stronger”. Discussing “password reuse” is more complicated, forcing us discuss password managers, writing down passwords on paper, that it’s okay to reuse passwords for crappy websites you don’t care about, and so on.

What I’m trying to say is that the moral weakness here is us. Rather then give pertinent advice we give lazy advice. We give the advice that victim shames them for being weak while pretending that we are strong.

So stop telling people to use strong passwords. It’s crass advice on your part and largely unhelpful for your audience, distracting them from the more important things.

"Skyfall attack" was attention seeking

Post Syndicated from Robert Graham original http://blog.erratasec.com/2018/01/skyfall-attack-was-attention-seeking.html

After the Meltdown/Spectre attacks, somebody created a website promising related “Skyfall/Solace” attacks. They revealed today that it was a “hoax”.

It was a bad hoax. It wasn’t a clever troll, parody, or commentary. It was childish behavior seeking attention.
For all you hate naming of security vulnerabilities, Meltdown/Spectre was important enough to deserve a name. Sure, from an infosec perspective, it was minor, we just patch and move on. But from an operating-system and CPU design perspective, these things where huge.
Page table isolation to fix Meltdown is a fundamental redesign of the operating system. What you learned in college about how Solaris, Windows, Linux, and BSD were designed is now out-of-date. It’s on the same scale of change as address space randomization.
The same is true of Spectre. It changes what capabilities are given to JavaScript (buffers and high resolution timers). It dramatically increases the paranoia we have of running untrusted code from the Internet. We’ve been cleansing JavaScript of things like buffer-overflows and type confusion errors, now we have to cleanse it of branch prediction issues.

Moreover, not only do we need to change software, we need to change the CPU. No, we won’t get rid of branch-prediction and out-of-order execution, but there things that can easily be done to mitigate these attacks. We won’t be recalling the billions of CPUs already shipped, and it will take a year before fixed CPUs appear on the market, but it’s still an important change. That we fix security through such a massive hardware change is by itself worthy of “names”.

Yes, the “naming” of vulnerabilities is annoying. A bunch of vulns named by their creators have disappeared, and we’ve stopped talking about them. On the other hand, we still talk about Heartbleed and Shellshock, because they were damn important. A decade from now, we’ll still be talking about Meltdown/Spectre. Even if they hadn’t been named by their creators, we still would’ve come up with nicknames to talk about them, because CVE numbers are so inconvenient.
Thus, the hoax’s mocking of the naming is invalid. It was largely incoherent rambling from somebody who really doesn’t understand the importance of these vulns, who uses the hoax to promote themselves.

Daniel Miessler on My Writings about IoT Security

Post Syndicated from Bruce Schneier original https://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2018/01/daniel_miessler.html

Daniel Miessler criticizes my writings about IoT security:

I know it’s super cool to scream about how IoT is insecure, how it’s dumb to hook up everyday objects like houses and cars and locks to the internet, how bad things can get, and I know it’s fun to be invited to talk about how everything is doom and gloom.

I absolutely respect Bruce Schneier a lot for what he’s contributed to InfoSec, which makes me that much more disappointed with this kind of position from him.

InfoSec is full of those people, and it’s beneath people like Bruce to add their voices to theirs. Everyone paying attention already knows it’s going to be a soup sandwich — a carnival of horrors — a tragedy of mistakes and abuses of trust.

It’s obvious. Not interesting. Not novel. Obvious. But obvious or not, all these things are still going to happen.

I actually agree with everything in his essay. “We should obviously try to minimize the risks, but we don’t do that by trying to shout down the entire enterprise.” Yes, definitely.

I don’t think the IoT must be stopped. I do think that the risks are considerable, and will increase as these systems become more pervasive and susceptible to class breaks. And I’m trying to write a book that will help navigate this. I don’t think I’m the prophet of doom, and don’t want to come across that way. I’ll give the manuscript another read with that in mind.

People can’t read (Equifax edition)

Post Syndicated from Robert Graham original http://blog.erratasec.com/2017/09/people-cant-read-equifax-edition.html

One of these days I’m going to write a guide for journalists reporting on the cyber. One of the items I’d stress is that they often fail to read the text of what is being said, but instead read some sort of subtext that wasn’t explicitly said. This is valid sometimes — as the subtext is what the writer intended all along, even if they didn’t explicitly write it. Other times, though the imagined subtext is not what the writer intended at all.

A good example is the recent Equifax breach. The original statement says:

Equifax Inc. (NYSE: EFX) today announced a cybersecurity incident potentially impacting approximately 143 million U.S. consumers.

The word consumers was widely translated to customers, as in this Bloomberg story:

Equifax Inc. said its systems were struck by a cyberattack that may have affected about 143 million U.S. customers of the credit reporting agency

But these aren’t the same thing. Equifax is a credit rating agency, keeping data on people who are not its own customers. It’s an important difference.

Another good example is yesterday’s quote “confirming” that the “Apache Struts” vulnerability was to blame:

Equifax has been intensely investigating the scope of the intrusion with the assistance of a leading, independent cybersecurity firm to determine what information was accessed and who has been impacted. We know that criminals exploited a U.S. website application vulnerability. The vulnerability was Apache Struts CVE-2017-5638.

But it doesn’t confirm Struts was responsible. Blaming Struts is certainly the subtext of this paragraph, but it’s not the text. It mentions that criminals had exploited the Struts vulnerability, but don’t actually connect the dots to the breach we are all talking about.

There’s probably reasons for this. While it’s easy for forensics to find evidence of Struts exploitation in logfiles, it’s much harder to connect this to the breach. While they suspect Struts, they may not actually be able to confirm it. Or, maybe they are trying to cover things up, where they feel failing to patch is a lesser crime than what they really did.

It’s at this point journalists should earn their pay. Instead rewriting what they read on the Internet, they could do legwork and call up Equifax PR and ask.

The purpose of this post isn’t to discuss Equifax, but the tendency of people to “read between the lines”, to read some subtext that wasn’t actually expressed in the text. Sometimes the subtext is legitimately there, such as how Equifax clearly intends people to blame Struts thought they don’t say it outright. Sometimes the subtext isn’t there, such as how Equifax doesn’t mean it’s own customers, only “U.S. consumers”. Journalists need to be careful about making assumptions about the subtext.


Update: The Equifax CSO has a degree in music. Some people have criticized this. Most people have defended this, pointing out that almost nobody has an “infosec” degree in our industry, and many of the top people have no degree at all. Among others, @thegrugq has pointed out that infosec degrees are only a few years old — they weren’t around 20 years ago when today’s corporate officers were getting their degrees.

Again, we have the text/subtext problem, where people interpret infosec degrees as being the same as computer-science degrees, the later of which have existed for decades. Some, as in this case, consider them to be wildly different. Others consider them to be nearly the same.

Massive Acunetix Online Update Brings New Features & UI

Post Syndicated from Darknet original http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/darknethackers/~3/09ZZTAFoTSs/

So there’s been a massive Acunetix Online update that has pushed out a brand new UI plus a whole bunch of new features and capabilities, including really powerful stuff for security professionals and organisations who take their security seriously The update has focused a lot on Usability of the UI and features for infosec pros […]

The post…

Read the full post at darknet.org.uk

WannaCry Ransomware Foiled By Domain Killswitch

Post Syndicated from Darknet original http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/darknethackers/~3/ASy1wNCVg7I/

Whilst I was away on a tropical island enjoying myself the Infosec Internet was on fire with news of the global WannaCry ransomware threat which showed up in the UK NHS and was spreading across 74 different countries. The Ransomware seems to be the first that is P2P using an SMB exploit from the NSA […]

The post WannaCry Ransomware Foiled…

Read the full post at darknet.org.uk

NTPsec Project announces 0.9.7

Post Syndicated from ris original https://lwn.net/Articles/717796/rss

The NTPsec Project has announced the 0.9.7 release of NTPsec, with
assistance from the Mozilla Foundation’s “Secure Open Source” initiative.
NTPsec is an implementation of the Network Time Protocol (NTP).
NTPsec 0.9.7 incorporates significant improvements in security, accuracy,
precision, visualization, and usability, with assistance, contributions,
and audits provided by infosec researchers and other technical contributors.

For this release, the NTPsec Project worked particularly closely with the
Mozilla Foundation’s “Secure Open Source” initiative, who funded an infosec
audit, and with Cure53.de, who provided the audit.”

Utopia

Post Syndicated from Eevee original https://eev.ee/blog/2017/03/08/utopia/

It’s been a while, but someone’s back on the Patreon blog topic tier! IndustrialRobot asks:

What does your personal utopia look like? Do you think we (as mankind) can achieve it? Why/why not?

Hm.

I spent the month up to my eyeballs in a jam game, but this question was in the back of my mind a lot. I could use it as a springboard to opine about anything, especially in the current climate: politics, religion, nationalism, war, economics, etc., etc. But all of that has been done to death by people who actually know what they’re talking about.

The question does say “personal”. So in a less abstract sense… what do I want the world to look like?

Mostly, I want everyone to have the freedom to make things.

I’ve been having a surprisingly hard time writing the rest of this without veering directly into the ravines of “basic income is good” and “maybe capitalism is suboptimal”. Those are true, but not really the tone I want here, and anyway they’ve been done to death by better writers than I. I’ve talked this out with Mel a few times, and it sounds much better aloud, so I’m going to try to drop my Blog Voice and just… talk.

*ahem*

Art versus business

So, art. Art is good.

I’m construing “art” very broadly here. More broadly than “media”, too. I’m including shitty robots, weird Twitter almost-bots, weird Twitter non-bots, even a great deal of open source software. Anything that even remotely resembles creative work — driven perhaps by curiosity, perhaps by practicality, but always by a soul bursting with ideas and a palpable need to get them out.

Western culture thrives on art. Most culture thrives on art. I’m not remotely qualified to defend this, but I suspect you could define culture in terms of art. It’s pretty important.

You’d think this would be reflected in how we discuss art, but often… it’s not. Tell me how often you’ve heard some of these gems.

  • I could do that.”
  • My eight-year-old kid could do that.”
  • Jokes about the worthlessness of liberal arts degrees.
  • Jokes about people trying to write novels in their spare time, the subtext being that only dreamy losers try to write novels, or something.
  • The caricature of a hippie working on a screenplay at Starbucks.

Oh, and then there was the guy who made a bot to scrape tons of art from artists who were using Patreon as a paywall — and a primary source of income. The justification was that artists shouldn’t expect to make a living off of, er, doing art, and should instead get “real jobs”.

I do wonder. How many of the people repeating these sentiments listen to music, or go to movies, or bought an iPhone because it’s prettier? Are those things not art that took real work to create? Is creating those things not a “real job”?

Perhaps a “real job” has to be one that’s not enjoyable, not a passion? And yet I can’t recall ever hearing anyone say that Taylor Swift should get a “real job”. Or that, say, pro football players should get “real jobs”. What do pro football players even do? They play a game a few times a year, and somehow this drives the flow of unimaginable amounts of money. We dress it up in the more serious-sounding “sport”, but it’s a game in the same general genre as hopscotch. There’s nothing wrong with that, but somehow it gets virtually none of the scorn that art does.

Another possible explanation is America’s partly-Christian, partly-capitalist attitude that you deserve exactly whatever you happen to have at the moment. (Whereas I deserve much more and will be getting it any day now.) Rich people are rich because they earned it, and we don’t question that further. Poor people are poor because they failed to earn it, and we don’t question that further, either. To do so would suggest that the system is somehow unfair, and hard work does not perfectly correlate with any particular measure of success.

I’m sure that factors in, but it’s not quite satisfying: I’ve also seen a good deal of spite aimed at people who are making a fairly decent chunk through Patreon or similar. Something is missing.

I thought, at first, that the key might be the American worship of work. Work is an inherent virtue. Politicians run entire campaigns based on how many jobs they’re going to create. Notably, no one seems too bothered about whether the work is useful, as long as someone decided to pay you for it.

Finally I stumbled upon the key. America doesn’t actually worship work. America worships business. Business means a company is deciding to pay you. Business means legitimacy. Business is what separates a hobby from a career.

And this presents a problem for art.

If you want to provide a service or sell a product, that’ll be hard, but America will at least try to look like it supports you. People are impressed that you’re an entrepreneur, a small business owner. Politicians will brag about policies made in your favor, whether or not they’re stabbing you in the back.

Small businesses have a particular structure they can develop into. You can divide work up. You can have someone in sales, someone in accounting. You can provide specifications and pay a factory to make your product. You can defer all of the non-creative work to someone else, whether that means experts in a particular field or unskilled labor.

But if your work is inherently creative, you can’t do that. The very thing you’re making is your idea in your style, driven by your experience. This is not work that’s readily parallelizable. Even if you sell physical merchandise and register as an LLC and have a dedicated workspace and do various other formal business-y things, the basic structure will still look the same: a single person doing the thing they enjoy. A hobbyist.

Consider the bulleted list from above. Those are all individual painters or artists or authors or screenwriters. The kinds of artists who earn respect without question are generally those managed by a business, those with branding: musical artists signed to labels, actors working for a studio. Even football players are part of a tangle of business.

(This doesn’t mean that business automatically confers respect, of course; tech in particular is full of anecdotes about nerds’ disdain for people whose jobs are design or UI or documentation or whathaveyou. But a businessy look seems to be a significant advantage.)

It seems that although art is a large part of what informs culture, we have a culture that defines “serious” endeavors in such a way that independent art cannot possibly be “serious”.

Art versus money

Which wouldn’t really matter at all, except that we also have a culture that expects you to pay for food and whatnot.

The reasoning isn’t too outlandish. Food is produced from a combination of work and resources. In exchange for getting the food, you should give back some of your own work and resources.

Obviously this is riddled with subtle flaws, but let’s roll with it for now and look at a case study. Like, uh, me!

Mel and I built and released two games together in the six weeks between mid-January and the end of February. Together, those games have made $1,000 in sales. The sales trail off fairly quickly within a few days of release, so we’ll call that the total gross for our effort.

I, dumb, having never actually sold anything before, thought this was phenomenal. Then I had the misfortune of doing some math.

Itch takes at least 10%, so we’re down to $900 net. Divided over six weeks, that’s $150 per week, before taxes — or $3.75 per hour if we’d been working full time.

Ah, but wait! There are two of us. And we hadn’t been working full time — we’d been working nearly every waking hour, which is at least twice “full time” hours. So we really made less than a dollar an hour. Even less than that, if you assume overtime pay.

From the perspective of capitalism, what is our incentive to do this? Between us, we easily have over thirty years of experience doing the things we do, and we spent weeks in crunch mode working on something, all to earn a small fraction of minimum wage. Did we not contribute back our own work and resources? Was our work worth so much less than waiting tables?

Waiting tables is a perfectly respectable way to earn a living, mind you. Ah, but wait! I’ve accidentally done something clever here. It is generally expected that you tip your waiter, because waiters are underpaid by the business, because the business assumes they’ll be tipped. Not tipping is actually, almost impressively, one of the rudest things you can do. And yet it’s not expected that you tip an artist whose work you enjoy, even though many such artists aren’t being paid at all.

Now, to be perfectly fair, both games were released for free. Even a dollar an hour is infinitely more than the zero dollars I was expecting — and I’m amazed and thankful we got as much as we did! Thank you so much. I bring it up not as a complaint, but as an armchair analysis of our systems of incentives.

People can take art for granted and whatever, yes, but there are several other factors at play here that hamper the ability for art to make money.

For one, I don’t want to sell my work. I suspect a great deal of independent artists and writers and open source developers (!) feel the same way. I create things because I want to, because I have to, because I feel so compelled to create that having a non-creative full-time job was making me miserable. I create things for the sake of expressing an idea. Attaching a price tag to something reduces the number of people who’ll experience it. In other words, selling my work would make it less valuable in my eyes, in much the same way that adding banner ads to my writing would make it less valuable.

And yet, I’m forced to sell something in some way, or else I’ll have to find someone who wants me to do bland mechanical work on their ideas in exchange for money… at the cost of producing sharply less work of my own. Thank goodness for Patreon, at least.

There’s also the reverse problem, in that people often don’t want to buy creative work. Everyone does sometimes, but only sometimes. It’s kind of a weird situation, and the internet has exacerbated it considerably.

Consider that if I write a book and print it on paper, that costs something. I have to pay for the paper and the ink and the use of someone else’s printer. If I want one more book, I have to pay a little more. I can cut those costs pretty considerable by printing a lot of books at once, but each copy still has a price, a marginal cost. If I then gave those books away, I would be actively losing money. So I can pretty well justify charging for a book.

Along comes the internet. Suddenly, copying costs nothing. Not only does it cost nothing, but it’s the fundamental operation. When you download a file or receive an email or visit a web site, you’re really getting a copy! Even the process which ultimately shows it on your screen involves a number of copies. This is so natural that we don’t even call it copying, don’t even think of it as copying.

True, bandwidth does cost something, but the rate is virtually nothing until you start looking at very big numbers indeed. I pay $60/mo for hosting this blog and a half dozen other sites — even that’s way more than I need, honestly, but downgrading would be a hassle — and I get 6TB of bandwidth. Even the longest of my posts haven’t exceeded 100KB. A post could be read by 64 million people before I’d start having a problem. If that were the population of a country, it’d be the 23rd largest in the world, between Italy and the UK.

How, then, do I justify charging for my writing? (Yes, I realize the irony in using my blog as an example in a post I’m being paid $88 to write.)

Well, I do pour effort and expertise and a fraction of my finite lifetime into it. But it doesn’t cost me anything tangible — I already had this hosting for something else! — and it’s easier all around to just put it online.

The same idea applies to a vast bulk of what’s online, and now suddenly we have a bit of a problem. Not only are we used to getting everything for free online, but we never bothered to build any sensible payment infrastructure. You still have to pay for everything by typing in a cryptic sequence of numbers from a little physical plastic card, which will then give you a small loan and charge the seller 30¢ plus 2.9% for the “convenience”.

If a website could say “pay 5¢ to read this” and you clicked a button in your browser and that was that, we might be onto something. But with our current setup, it costs far more than 5¢ to transfer 5¢, even though it’s just a number in a computer somewhere. The only people with the power and resources to fix this don’t want to fix it — they’d rather be the ones charging you the 30¢ plus 2.9%.

That leads to another factor of platforms and publishers, which are more than happy to eat a chunk of your earnings even when you do sell stuff. Google Play, the App Store, Steam, and anecdotally many other big-name comparative platforms all take 30% of your sales. A third! And that’s good! It seems common among book publishers to take 85% to 90%. For ebook sales — i.e., ones that don’t actually cost anything — they may generously lower that to a mere 75% to 85%.

Bless Patreon for only taking 5%. Itch.io is even better: it defaults to 10%, but gives you a slider, which you can set to anything from 0% to 100%.

I’ve mentioned all this before, so here’s a more novel thought: finite disposable income. Your audience only has so much money to spend on media right now. You can try to be more compelling to encourage them to spend more of it, rather than saving it, but ultimately everyone has a limit before they just plain run out of money.

Now, popularity is heavily influenced by social and network effects, so it tends to create a power law distribution: a few things are ridiculously hyperpopular, and then there’s a steep drop to a long tail of more modestly popular things.

If a new hyperpopular thing comes out, everyone is likely to want to buy it… but then that eats away a significant chunk of that finite pool of money that could’ve gone to less popular things.

This isn’t bad, and buying a popular thing doesn’t make you a bad person; it’s just what happens. I don’t think there’s any satisfying alternative that doesn’t involve radically changing the way we think about our economy.

Taylor Swift, who I’m only picking on because her infosec account follows me on Twitter, has sold tens of millions of albums and is worth something like a quarter of a billion dollars. Does she need more? If not, should she make all her albums free from now on?

Maybe she does, and maybe she shouldn’t. The alternative is for someone to somehow prevent her from making more money, which doesn’t sit well. Yet it feels almost heretical to even ask if someone “needs” more money, because we take for granted that she’s earned it — in part by being invested in by a record label and heavily advertised. The virtue is work, right? Don’t a lot of people work just as hard? (“But you have to be talented too!” Then please explain how wildly incompetent CEOs still make millions, and leave burning businesses only to be immediately hired by new ones? Anyway, are we really willing to bet there is no one equally talented but not as popular by sheer happenstance?)

It’s kind of a moot question anyway, since she’s probably under contract with billionaires and it’s not up to her.

Where the hell was I going with this.


Right, so. Money. Everyone needs some. But making it off art can be tricky, unless you’re one of the lucky handful who strike gold.

And I’m still pretty goddamn lucky to be able to even try this! I doubt I would’ve even gotten into game development by now if I were still working for an SF tech company — it just drained so much of my creative energy, and it’s enough of an uphill battle for me to get stuff done in the first place.

How many people do I know who are bursting with ideas, but have to work a tedious job to keep the lights on, and are too tired at the end of the day to get those ideas out? Make no mistake, making stuff takes work — a lot of it. And that’s if you’re already pretty good at the artform. If you want to learn to draw or paint or write or code, you have to do just as much work first, with much more frustration, and not as much to show for it.

Utopia

So there’s my utopia. I want to see a world where people have the breathing room to create the things they dream about and share them with the rest of us.

Can it happen? Maybe. I think the cultural issues are a fairly big blocker; we’d be much better off if we treated independent art with the same reverence as, say, people who play with a ball for twelve hours a year. Or if we treated liberal arts degrees as just as good as computer science degrees. (“But STEM can change the world!” Okay. How many people with computer science degrees would you estimate are changing the world, and how many are making a website 1% faster or keeping a lumbering COBOL beast running or trying to trick 1% more people into clicking on ads?)

I don’t really mean stuff like piracy, either. Piracy is a thing, but it’s… complicated. In my experience it’s not even artists who care the most about piracy; it’s massive publishers, the sort who see artists as a sponge to squeeze money out of. You know, the same people who make everything difficult to actually buy, infest it with DRM so it doesn’t work on half the stuff you own, and don’t even sell it in half the world.

I mean treating art as a free-floating commodity, detached from anyone who created it. I mean neo-Nazis adopting a comic book character as their mascot, against the creator’s wishes. I mean politicians and even media conglomerates using someone else’s music in well-funded videos and ads without even asking. I mean assuming Google Image Search, wonder that it is, is some kind of magical free art machine. I mean the snotty Reddit post I found while looking up Patreon’s fee structure, where some doofus was insisting that Patreon couldn’t possibly pay for a full-time YouTuber’s time, because not having a job meant they had lots of time to spare.

Maybe I should go one step further: everyone should create at least once or twice. Everyone should know what it’s like to have crafted something out of nothing, to be a fucking god within the microcosm of a computer screen or a sewing machine or a pottery table. Everyone should know that spark of inspiration that we don’t seem to know how to teach in math or science classes, even though it’s the entire basis of those as well. Everyone should know that there’s a good goddamn reason I listed open source software as a kind of art at the beginning of this post.

Basic income and more arts funding for public schools. If Uber can get billions of dollars for putting little car icons on top of Google Maps and not actually doing any of their own goddamn service themselves, I think we can afford to pump more cash into webcomics and indie games and, yes, even underwater basket weaving.

Why Are Hackers Winning The Security Game?

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A lot of people and companies get complacent and don’t believe the hackers are winning, but trust me they are. So we have to ask, why are hackers winning the security game? What’s putting them ahead of the security teams and CISOs inside organizations. It’s an old story anyway, the Hackers always win in some […]

The post Why Are Hackers…

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