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Strong opinions, weakly held

Security is a cost

At work, we’re switching things to encrypt a lot of information in our databases for security reasons. The project has been time consuming and painful, and in the end, our database is far less usable from a developer’s standpoint than it was before. Soon the days when I can quickly diagnose issues on the production system with a few well-placed SELECT statements will be a thing of the past.

As far as the implementation goes, I’ll tell Hibernate users who want to implement an encryption system that there’s only one way to go — UserTypes. Don’t bother with anything else.

What this project really has me thinking about, though, is the high cost of security. It ties into something from the Bill James interview that I linked to the other day. Here was his response to the question of whether we overestimate or underestimate the importance of crime:

We underestimate it, because it’s our intent to underestimate it. We only deal with it indirectly. We all do so many things to avoid being the victims of crime that we no longer see those things, so we don’t see the cost of it. Just finding a safe place for us to have this conversation, for example — we needed a quiet place, but before that, we needed to find a safe place. A hotel lobby is what it is because of the level of security. I’ve checked out of this hotel, but I’m still sitting here in the third-floor lobby, because it’s safe. When you buy something, it’s wrapped in seven layers of packaging in order to make it harder to steal.

I think that people are generally excessively afraid of crime but underestimate the day to day costs that crime imposes. In software engineering, we spend a lot of time and effort on security. If everyone were honest, we wouldn’t need passwords, encryption, or any of the other stuff that occupies a lot of time on every project. We’d still need to take precautions against damage caused by user error, but most of the hours we spend on security could be spent on other things.

The other cost of security, beyond implementation time, is the ongoing cost related to the inconvenience of security. Whether it’s the time we take to unlock our screen or set up SSH tunnels or deal with the fact that we have to decrypt data in the database in order to see it, it all counts. Security is almost always a form of technical debt.

In many cases security precautions are necessary (or even mandated by law), but it’s important to be vigilant and not add more of it than is necessary, because it’s almost always painful in the moment and forever thereafter.

1 Comment

  1. I’ve been thinking about this in the anti-terrorism setting, from the billions we spend in Iraq to the inordinate expenses being heaped up to inconvenience and humiliate plane travelers, etc. Preventing crime/terror is always vastly more costly than committing it — think the billions spent on frequency scanners to find IED’s versus the pennies for the devices themselves; the fortune spent on spam and phishing prevention versus the tiny cost of bulk emailing; the huge number of products that come sealed because a couple of folks in the 1970s poisoned two capsules… It’s amazing, and indeed we seem to think it’s all a reasonable way to go about things. Which it can’t really be, and yet who can unsee the damage if you’re wrong? It’s like incredibly badly analyzed insurance data/prices…

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