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Communications of the ACM

Privacy and security

Putting Trust in Security Engineering

Putting Trust in Security Engineering, illustration

Credit: Andrij Borys Associates / Shutterstock

When we must depend on a system, not only should we want it to resist attacks but we should have reason to believe that it will resist attacks. So security is a blend of two ingredients: mechanism and assurance. In developing a secure system, it is tempting to focus first on mechanism—the familiar "build then test" paradigm from software development. This column discusses some benefits of resisting that temptation. Instead, I advocate that designers focus first on aspects of assurance, because they can then explore—in a principled way—connections between a system design and its resistance to attack. Formalizing such connections as mathematical laws could enable an engineering discipline for secure systems.

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Trust and Assumptions

To computer security practitioners, the term "trust" has a specific technical meaning, different from its use in everyday language. To trust a component C is to assert a belief that C will behave as expected, despite attacks or failures. When I say that "we should trust C" then either I am asking you to ignore the possibility that C is compromised or I am asserting the availability of evidence that convinced me certain (often left implicit) aspects of C's behavior cannot be subverted. Availability of evidence is required in the second case, because what convinces me might not convince you, so psychological questions that underpin trust claims now can be explored separately in discussions about the evidence.


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