First Lady Melania Trump announced a guide to help children go online safely. It has problems.
Melania’s guide is full of outdated, impractical, inappropriate, and redundant information. But that’s allowed, because it relies upon moral authority: to be moral is to be secure, to be moral is to do what the government tells you. It matters less whether the advice is technically accurate, and more that you are supposed to do what authority tells you.
That’s a problem, not just with her guide, but most cybersecurity advice in general. Our community gives out advice without putting much thought into it, because it doesn’t need thought. You should do what we tell you, because being secure is your moral duty.
This post picks apart Melania’s document. The purpose isn’t to fine-tune her guide and make it better. Instead, the purpose is to demonstrate the idea of resting on moral authority instead of technical authority.
“Strong passwords” is the quintessential cybersecurity cliché that insecurity is due to some “weakness” (laziness, ignorance, greed, etc.) and the remedy is to be “strong”.
The first flaw is that this advice is outdated. Ten years ago, important websites would frequently get hacked and have poor password protection (like MD5 hashing). Back then, strength mattered, to stop hackers from brute force guessing the hacked passwords. These days, important websites get hacked less often and protect the passwords better (like salted bcrypt). Moreover, the advice is now often redundant: websites, at least the important ones, enforce a certain level of password complexity, so that even without advice, you’ll be forced to do the right thing most of the time.
This advice is outdated for a second reason: hackers have gotten a lot better at cracking passwords. Ten years ago, they focused on brute force, trying all possible combinations. Partly because passwords are now protected better, dramatically reducing the effectiveness of the brute force approach, hackers have had to focus on other techniques, such as the mutated dictionary and Markov chain attacks. Consequently, even though “Password123!” seems to meet the above criteria of a strong password, it’ll fall quickly to a mutated dictionary attack. The simple recommendation of “strong passwords” is no longer sufficient.
The last part of the above advice is to avoid password reuse. This is good advice. However, this becomes impractical advice, especially when the user is trying to create “strong” complex passwords as described above. There’s no way users/children can remember that many passwords. So they aren’t going to follow that advice.
To make the advice work, you need to help users with this problem. To begin with, you need to tell them to write down all their passwords. This is something many people avoid, because they’ve been told to be “strong” and writing down passwords seems “weak”. Indeed it is, if you write them down in an office environment and stick them on a note on the monitor or underneath the keyboard. But they are safe and strong if it’s on paper stored in your home safe, or even in a home office drawer. I write my passwords on the margins in a book on my bookshelf — even if you know that, it’ll take you a long time to figure out which book when invading my home.
The other option to help avoid password reuse is to use a password manager. I don’t recommend them to my own parents because that’d be just one more thing I’d have to help them with, but they are fairly easy to use. It means you need only one password for the password manager, which then manages random/complex passwords for all your web accounts.
So what we have here is outdated and redundant advice that overshadows good advice that is nonetheless incomplete and impractical. The advice is based on the moral authority of telling users to be “strong” rather than the practical advice that would help them.
No personal info unless website is secure
HTTPS means the connection to the website is secure, not that the website is secure. These are different things. It means hackers are unlikely to be able to eavesdrop on the traffic as it’s transmitted to the website. However, the website itself may be insecure (easily hacked), or worse, it may be a fraudulent website created by hackers to appear similar to a legitimate website.
What HTTPS secures is a common misconception, perpetuated by guides like this. This is the source of criticism for LetsEncrypt, an initiative to give away free website certificates so that everyone can get HTTPS. Hackers now routinely use LetsEncrypt to create their fraudulent websites to host their viruses. Since people have been taught forever that HTTPS means a website is “secure”, people are trusting these hacker websites.
But LetsEncrypt is a good thing, all connections should be secure. What’s bad is not LetsEncrypt itself, but guides like this from the government that have for years been teaching people the wrong thing, that HTTPS means a website is secure.
Of course, no guide would be complete without telling people to backup their stuff.
This is especially important with the growing ransomware threat. Ransomware is a type of virus/malware that encrypts your files then charges you money to get the key to decrypt the files. Half the time this just destroys the files.
But this again is moral authority, telling people what to do, instead of educating them how to do it. Most will ignore this advice because they don’t know how to effectively backup their stuff.
For most users, it’s easy to go to the store and buy a 256-gigabyte USB drive for $40 (as of May 2018) then use the “Timemachine” feature in macOS, or on Windows the “File History” feature or the “Backup and Restore” feature. These can be configured to automatically do the backup on a regular basis so that you don’t have to worry about it.
But such “local” backups are still problematic. If the drive is left plugged into the machine, ransomeware can attack the backup. If there’s a fire, any backup in your home will be destroyed along with the computer.
I recommend cloud backup instead. There are so many good providers, like DropBox, Backblaze, Microsoft, Apple’s iCloud, and so on. These are especially critical for phones: if your iPhone is destroyed or stolen, you can simply walk into an Apple store and buy a new one, with everything replaced as it was from their iCloud.
But all of this i
s missing the key problem: your photos. You carry a camera with you all the time now and take a lot of high resolution photos. This quickly exceeds the capacity of most of the free backup solutions. You can configure these, such as you phone’s iCloud backup, to exclude photos, but that means you are prone to losing your photos/memories. For example, Drop Box is great for the free 5 gigabyte service, but if I want to preserve photos on it, I have to pay for their more expensive service.
One of the key messages kids should learn about photos is that they will likely lose most all of the photos they’ve taken within 5 years. The exceptions will be the few photos they’ve posted to social media, which sorta serves as a cloud backup for them. If they want to preserve the rest of these memories, the kids need to take seriously finding backup solutions. I’m not sure of the best solution, but I buy big USB flash drives and send them to my niece asking her to copy all her photos to them, so that at least I can put that in a safe.
One surprisingly good solution is Microsoft Office 365. For $99 a year, you get a copy of their Office software (which I use) but it also comes with a large 1-terabyte of cloud storage, which is likely big enough for your photos. Apple charges around the same amount for 1-terabyte of iCloud, though it doesn’t come with a free license for Microsoft Office :-).
Your home WiFi should be encrypted, of course.
I have to point out the language, though. Turning on WPA2 WiFi encryption does not “secure your network”. Instead, it just secures the radio signals from being eavesdropped. Your network may have other vulnerabilities, where encryption won’t help, such as when your router has remote administration turned on with a default or backdoor password enabled.
I’m being a bit pedantic here, but it’s not my argument. It’s the FTC’s argument when they sued vendors like D-Link for making exactly the same sort of recommendation. The FTC claimed it was deceptive business practice because recommending users do things like this still didn’t mean the device was “secure”. Since the FTC is partly responsible for writing Melania’s document, I find this a bit ironic.
In any event, WPA2 personal has problems where it can be hacked, such as if WPS is enabled, or evil twin access-points broadcasting stronger (or more directional) signals. It’s thus insufficient security. To be fully secure against possible WiFi eavesdropping you need to enable enterprise WPA2, which isn’t something most users can do.
Also, WPA2 is largely redundant. If you wardrive your local neighborhood you’ll find that almost everyone has WPA enabled already anyway. Guides like this probably don’t need to advise what everyone’s already doing, especially when it’s still incomplete.
Change your router password
Thus, they ignore the important thing (remote administration) and instead focus on the less important thing (change default password).
In addition, this advice again the impractical recommendation of choosing a complex (strong) password. Users who do this usually forget it by the time they next need it. Practical advice is to recommend users write down the password they choose, and put it either someplace they won’t forget (like with the rest of their passwords), or on a sticky note under the router.
Update router firmware
Routers are just one of many IoT devices we are going to have to come to terms with, keeping them patched. I don’t know the right answer. I check my parents stuff every Thanksgiving, so maybe that’s a good strategy: patch your stuff at the end of every year. Maybe some cultural norms will develop, but simply telling people to be strong about their IoT firmware patches isn’t going to be practical in the near term.
Don’t click on stuff
This probably the most common cybersecurity advice given by infosec professionals. It is wrong.
Emails/messages are designed for you to click on things. You regularly get emails/messages from legitimate sources that demand you click on things. It’s so common from legitimate sources that there’s no practical way for users to distinguish between them and bad sources. As that Google Docs bug showed, even experts can’t always tell the difference.
I mean, it’s true that phishing attacks coming through emails/messages try to trick you into clicking on things, and you should be suspicious of such things. However, it doesn’t follow from this that not clicking on things is a practical strategy. It’s like diet advice recommending you stop eating food altogether.
Sex predators, oh my!
Of course, its kids going online, so of course you are going to have warnings about sexual predators:
But online predators are rare. The predator threat to children is overwhelmingly from relatives and acquaintances, a much smaller threat from strangers, and a vanishingly tiny threat from online predators. Recommendations like this stem from our fears of the unknown technology rather tha
n a rational measurement of the threat.
Sexting, oh my!
So here is one piece of advice that I can agree with: don’t sext:
But the reason this is bad is not because it’s immoral or wrong, but because adults have gone crazy and made it illegal for children to take nude photographs of themselves. As this article points out, your child is more likely to get in trouble and get placed on the sex offender registry (for life) than to get molested by a person on that registry.
Thus, we need to warn kids not from some immoral activity, but from adults who’ve gotten freaked out about it. Yes, sending pictures to your friends/love-interest will also often get you in trouble as those images will frequently get passed around school, but such temporary embarrassments will pass. Getting put on a sex offender registry harms you for life.
Texting while driving
Finally, I want to point out this error:
The evidence is to the contrary, that it’s not actually dangerous — it’s just assumed to be dangerous. Texting rarely distracts drivers from what’s going on the road. It instead replaces some other inattention, such as day dreaming, fiddling with the radio, or checking yourself in the mirror. Risk compensation happens, when people are texting while driving, they are also slowing down and letting more space between them and the car in front of them.
Studies have shown this. For example, one study measured accident rates at 6:59pm vs 7:01pm and found no difference. That’s when “free evening texting” came into effect, so we should’ve seen a bump in the number of accidents. They even tried to narrow the effect down, such as people texting while changing cell towers (proving they were in motion).
Yes, texting is illegal, but that’s because people are fed up with the jerk in front of them not noticing the light is green. It’s not illegal because it’s particularly dangerous, that it has a measurable impact on accident rates.