15 May 2017

Only NSA can prevent future attacks

Herb Lin argues that the NSA isn't responsible for the recent wave of ransomware attacks based on a vulnerabilities the NSA discovered, hoarded, and failed to secure.

In his essay, Lin says that computer administrators and Github are really to blame for the attacks. One almost gets the feeling he’s casting about for someone else to blame, anyone but the NSA:

Microsoft issued a fix for the vulnerability in question in March—a month before it was released by the Shadow Brokers. [...] System administrators should be patching their systems when patches are available unless there’s some very good reason for not doing so.


Does NSA bear any responsibility for the outbreak of WannaCrypt through its stockpiling of some vulnerabilities that were subsequently revealed? Sure, [...] But one could argue just as well that Github—the distribution channel for the Shadow Brokers—was equally responsible for making the vulnerability and exploit code widely available. So why isn’t anyone complaining about Github’s actions in this regard? At the very least, both entities share some degree of responsibility—NSA for allowing the vulnerability to be leaked, and Github for publicizing it.

Let's set aside blame for a moment and just talk about practical security. How do we prevent the next attack?

Any given administrator could only have protected their own systems—doubtless thousands of them did, by keeping their software up to date. No administrator or existing organization of administrators could have prevented the overall attack, and it’s foolish to expect them to prevent the next one. Likewise, it was never in Github’s (or anyone else’s) power to prevent dissemination of the NSA’s trove of software vulnerabilities, because as we all know, Github is not the only way to publish files on the Internet.

Think how staggeringly poor your grasp of the Internet (or blame itself) would have to be, to blame Github for this.

There are only a few parties that could have prevented this attack:

  • the criminals who actually launched it;
  • the spies or criminals who revealed the vulnerability;
  • Microsoft, by not having vulnerabilities in Windows in the first place;
  • the NSA, by revealing the vulnerability to Microsoft years ago.

We must look to one of these to prevent the next attack. I don't expect the criminals and hostile foreign powers of the world to cooperate. Microsoft is already doing its level best, and publicly begging for the NSA's help. This leaves the NSA, an organization whose mission is to protect the United States from exactly the sort of mayhem it enabled here.

Even if, like Lin, we want to talk about blame, common sense says only parties that could have prevented an event can be blamed for it. Bottom line: Herb Lin’s column is logically and ethically incoherent. He should retract it and start over.