Don't let security dogma steer you wrong

My recent post describing some of the reasons we choose Slack over IRC for our public forum is part of a larger conversation people are having around the promise and concerns of group-communication tools. A quick search for "Slack vs. IRC" yields a wealth of opinions on the subject; our post generated some interesting discussion (and a couple angry rants on Twitter).

I focused my discussion on the usability advantages of Slack – advantages that I believe encourage designers to join our public forum in a way that they would not if it were hosted on IRC. Simply Secure is about bridging the gap between the technical and design/research communities to get more human-centered thinkers working on open-source privacy-preserving tools. We can't do that if we continue to tell designers that they have to communicate using tools they hate, and the OSS community's expectation that they do so is one reason open-source tools are still so painful to use.

Buried at the end of the post was another point that deserves more attention: "But for the meantime, this abstract threat does not outweigh the benefits Slack offers, especially when one ponders how often both Slack and its open-source alternatives realistically undergo regular security reviews by skilled engineers."

Text image: security reality, not security dogma

It's critical to observe that we can't assume that open-source tools are always – by virtue of them being open source alone – the most secure in practice.

Open source alone is not enough

"What?!", you might be yelling at your screen. After all, we all know that opening source code to the light of day allows the public to hold developers accountable, and prevent both unintentional bugs and all-too-intentional back doors.

But, you have to ask yourself: how many security audits have you personally performed of the open-source tools you use? (What were the results? Did you do a follow-up a year later?) How many IRC clients have bug bounties? How many of the open-source tools we depend on have anyone with security expertise reviewing their code – much less neutral third parties who aren't part of the team that wrote it?

The answers, of course, are not pretty. Even projects new and old with an explicit security focus suffer serious bugs that would arguably have been caught by a thorough security review. We're still exploring the world of Slack alternatives, but a recent review listed "empty test suite" as a problem with three of the five products it considered. If a team doesn't have the resources to build automated tests into their development cycle, what confidence can we have that they are doing their due diligence with respect to security?

Dealing with resourcing realities

Big closed-source organizations like Slack clearly have the leg up in this domain; a quick search on LinkedIn reveals at least a handful of Slack engineers whose primary focus is security. This is slowly changing in the open-source world; efforts like the Core Infrastructure Initiative and OTF's Red Team Lab (currently accepting applications; contact with questions) provide support to open-source projects seeking to evaluate and improve their security posture.

It's not enough to shake our collective, outraged fist and say that open-source projects would fulfill their maximally-secure destiny if only they had more resources. And I agree, of course, that there are considerations beyond code-level vulnerabilities that should give any user pause when considering a tool like Slack. Security is not a binary property, and a cloud-based solution hosted by a third party is too risky in the context of many organizations' threat models.

Open-source is good; avoiding dogma is better

So if you're an organization that has the technical resources to host your own solution, and you find one that is truly accessible to your users (or your users have the time and patience to work with the developers to improve it), that's great! If you do use an open-source tool, please contribute back to the project so its developers can continue in their good work. This is the ideal outcome, and the one that will lead us to the best privacy and security posture over time.

But, in the meantime – and no matter your threat model – please take an honest look at the pros and cons of any solution you consider, and think critically about whether a development team practices the values that they preach. Open-source solutions are great, but only if they will really meet your needs, or can be adapted to in a reasonable amount of time to do so. Just because something is open-source doesn't mean that is it necessarily has fewer security vulnerabilities than a closed-source solution. Espousing otherwise – especially to organizations with limited technical capacity – is irresponsible.

Don't let security dogma get in the way of your assessment of security reality.

Thanks to @isa for a recent conversation on the topic that inspired this post, although please don’t blame her for my conclusions.


Encryption is not for terrorists

Recent attacks by Daesh in Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon, and Paris have fanned the flames of an ongoing debate about software that is resistant to surveillance. It seems that some participants in that debate are trying to use these attacks as an excuse to drum up fear around end-to-end encryption. They argue that these events tell us that the general citizenry shouldn’t have access to strong privacy-preserving tools. A lot of people are saying a lot of smart things on the subject, but I want to briefly outline a couple ways in which this call for limiting encryption is problematic.

Meeting Users' Needs: The Necessary Is Not Sufficient

Building great software requires understanding what users want and need. If you’re building privacy-preserving software, this includes understanding the privacy threats that your users face. One of the participants in Ame’s NYC study. When Ame set out to talk to people in the New York City neighborhoods of Brownsville and Harlem about their experiences with mobile messaging, she wanted to amplify voices that are frequently underrepresented in the software community. (Many thanks again to Blue Ridge Labs for helping her connect with study participants.

Video Roundup

It’s always great to attend security and privacy conferences in person. But in cases where you have to miss an event, online videos of the talks can be a great way to stay current with the ongoing conversation. Art, Design, and The Future of Privacy As I promised back in September, the videos of the event we co-hosted with DIS Magazine at Pioneer Works are available online. The DIS blog had a great writeup with summaries of the different panels, and you can find transcripts over at Open Transcripts.