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Why Information Security is Hard — An Economic Perspective

This is the title of a 2001 paper by Ross Anderson. Bruce Schneier, in the 15 July issue of his Crypto-Gram newsletter, called it a "brilliant article." So I decided to read it. As a long-time programmer with no special expertise in information security, I found it to be extremely interesting. Here are a couple of juicy quotes.

In a survey of fraud against autoteller machines, it was found that patterns of fraud depended on who was liable for them. In the USA, if a customer disputed a transaction, the onus was on the bank to prove that the customer was mistaken or lying; this gave US banks a motive to protect their systems properly. But in Britain, Norway and the Netherlands, the burden of proof lay on the customer: the bank was right unless the customer could prove it wrong. Since this was almost impossible, the banks in these countries became careless. Eventually, epidemics of fraud demolished their complacency. US banks, meanwhile, suffered much less fraud; although they actually spent less money on security than their European counterparts, they spent it more effectively.

A different kind of incentive failure surfaced in early 2000, with distributed denial of service attacks against a number of high-profile web sites. These exploit a number of subverted machines to launch a large coordinated packet flood at a target. Since many of them flood the victim at the same time, the traffic is more than the target can cope with, and because it comes from many different sources, it can be very difficult to stop.... While individual computer users might be happy to spend $100 on anti-virus software to protect themselves against attack, they are unlikely to spend even $1 on software to prevent their machines being used to attack Amazon or Microsoft.

You may have to read the paper to see what this next one has to do with information security.

A very common objective is differentiated pricing. This is usually critical to firms that price a product or service not to its cost but to its value to the customer. This is familiar from the world of air travel: you can spend $200 to fly the Atlantic in coach class, $2000 in business class or $5000 in first. Some commentators are surprised by the size of this gap; yet a French economist, Jules Dupuit, had already written in 1849:

[I]t is not because of the few thousand francs which would have to be spent to put a roof over the third-class carriage or to upholster the third-class seats that some company or other has open carriages with wooden benches . . . What the company is trying to do is prevent the passengers who can pay the second-class fare from traveling third class; it hits the poor, not because it wants to hurt them, but to frighten the rich . . . And it is again for the same reason that the companies, having proved almost cruel to the third-class passengers and mean to the second-class ones, become lavish in dealing with first-class customers. Having refused the poor what is necessary, they give the rich what is superfluous.

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