September 19, 2017

Archives for February 2017

Smart Contracts: Neither Smart nor Contracts?

Karen Levy has an interesting new article critiquing blockchain-based “smart contracts.”  The first part of her title, “Book-Smart, not Street-Smart,” sums up her point. Here’s a snippet:

Though smart contracts do have some features that might serve the goals of social justice and fairness, I suggest that they are based on a thin conception of what law does, and how it does it. Smart contracts focus on the technical form of contract to the exclusion of the social contexts within which contracts operate, and the complex ways in which people use them. In the real world, contractual obligations are enforced through all kinds of social mechanisms other than formal adjudication—and contracts serve many functions that are not explicitly legal in nature, or even designed to be formally enforced.

To review, “smart contracts” are a feature of some blockchain-based systems, which allow an interaction between multiple parties to be encoded as a set of rules which will be executed automatically by the system, so that neither the parties nor anyone else can prevent those rules from being enforced. There are lots of variations on the basic idea, which differ in aspects such as exactly what kind of code is used to program the rules, what kinds of actions can be expressed in a ruleset, and so on.

A simple example is an escrow arrangement, where Alice puts some money into escrow, and the money is released to Bob later if an arbiter Charlie determines that Bob performed some required action; otherwise the money returns to Alice. An escrow mechanism can be encoded as a “smart contract” so that once put into escrow the funds can only be disbursed to Alice or Bob, and only as specified by Charlie. Additional features, such as (say) splitting the money 50/50 between Alice and Bob if Charlie fails to act, can be built in. Indeed, the whole idea is that complicated rules can be encoded and then automatically executed with no dispute or appeal possible.

Karen’s argument, that contracts serve functions that are not merely legal, is correct–and that is one reason why “smart contracts” may not be street-smart.  But in addition to failing to do the non-legal work that contracts do, “smart contracts” also fail to do much of the legal work that contracts do, because they don’t work in the same way as contracts.

To give just one example, a legal contract need not try to anticipate absolutely every relevant event that might occur. If some weird thing happens that is not envisioned in a regular legal contract, the parties can work out a modification to the contract that seems reasonable to them, and failing that, a judge might decide the outcome, subject to established legal principles.  Similarly, a single error or “bug” in writing a regular contract, causing its literal meaning to differ from what the parties intended, is unlikely to lead to extreme results because the legal system will often resolve such a problem by trying to be reasonable.

Contrast this with “smart contracts” where a bug in a “contract’s” code can lead to a perverse result that may allow one party to exploit the bug, extracting much of the value out of the arrangement with no recourse for the other parties. That’s what happened with the DAO in Ethereum, leading to a controversial attempt to unwind a legal-according-to-the-rules set of transactions, and dividing the Ethereum community.

So if “smart contracts” may not be smart, and may not be contracts, what are they? It’s best to think of them not as contracts but as mechanisms. A mechanism is a sort of virtual machine that will do exactly what it is designed to do. Like an industrial machine, which can cause terrible damage if it’s not designed very carefully for safety or if it is used thoughtlessly, a mechanism can cause harm unless designed and used with great care.  That said, in some circumstances a mechanism will be exactly what you need.

Discarding the term “smart contract” which promises too much in both respects–being sometimes not smart and sometimes unlike a contract–and instead thinking of these virtual objects as nothing more or less than mindless mechanisms is not only more accurate, but also more likely to lead to more prudent application of this powerful idea.

 

 

Mitigating the Increasing Risks of an Insecure Internet of Things

The emergence and proliferation of Internet of Things (IoT) devices on industrial, enterprise, and home networks brings with it unprecedented risk. The potential magnitude of this risk was made concrete in October 2016, when insecure Internet-connected cameras launched a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack on Dyn, a provider of DNS service for many large online service providers (e.g., Twitter, Reddit). Although this incident caused large-scale disruption, it is noteworthy that the attack involved only a few hundred thousand endpoints and a traffic rate of about 1.2 terabits per second. With predictions of upwards of a billion IoT devices within the next five to ten years, the risk of similar, yet much larger attacks, is imminent.

The Growing Risks of Insecure IoT Devices

One of the biggest contributors to the risk of future attack is the fact that many IoT devices have long-standing, widely known software vulnerabilities that make them vulnerable to exploit and control by remote attackers. Worse yet, the vendors of these IoT devices often have provenance in the hardware industry, but they may lack expertise or resources in software development and systems security. As a result, IoT device manufacturers may ship devices that are extremely difficult, if not practically impossible, to secure. The large number of insecure IoT devices connected to the Internet poses unprecedented risks to consumer privacy, as well as threats to the underlying physical infrastructure and the global Internet at large:

  • Data privacy risks. Internet-connected devices increasingly collect data about the physical world, including information about the functioning of infrastructure such as the power grid and transportation systems, as well as personal or private data on individual consumers. At present, many IoT devices either do not encrypt their communications or use a form of encrypted transport that is vulnerable to attack. Many of these devices also store the data they collect in cloud-hosted services, which may be the target of data breaches or other attack.
  • Risks to availability of critical infrastructure and the Internet at large. As the Mirai botnet attack of October 2016 demonstrated, Internet services often share underlying dependencies on the underlying infrastructure: crippling many websites offline did not require direct attacks on these services, but rather a targeted attack on the underlying infrastructure on which many of these services depend (i.e., the Domain Name System). More broadly, one might expect future attacks that target not just the Internet infrastructure but also physical infrastructure that is increasingly Internet- connected (e.g., power and water systems). The dependencies that are inherent in the current Internet architecture create immediate threats to resilience.

    The large magnitude and broad scope of these risks implore us to seek solutions that will improve infrastructure resilience in the face of Internet-connected devices that are extremely difficult to secure. A central question in this problem area concerns the responsibility that each stakeholder in this ecosystem should bear, and the respective roles of technology and regulation (whether via industry self-regulation or otherwise) in securing both the Internet and associated physical infrastructure against these increased risks.

Risk Mitigation and Management

One possible lever for either government or self-regulation is the IoT device manufacturers. One possibility, for example, might be a device certification program for manufacturers that could attest to adherence to best common practice for device and software security. A well-known (and oft-used) analogy is the UL certification process for electrical devices and appliances.

Despite its conceptual appeal, however, a certification approach poses several practical challenges. One challenge is outlining and prescribing best common practices in the first place, particularly due to the rate at which technology (and attacks) progress. Any specific set of prescriptions runs the risk of falling out of date as technology advances; similarly, certification can readily devolve into a checklist of attributes that vendors satisfy, without necessarily adhering to the process by which these devices are secured over time. As daunting as challenges of specifying a certification program may seem, enforcing adherence to a certification program may prove even more challenging. Specifically, consumers may not appreciate the value of certification, particularly if meeting the requirements of certification increases the cost of a device. This concern may be particularly acute for consumer IoT, where consumers may not bear the direct costs of connecting insecure devices to their home networks.

The consumer is another stakeholder who could be incentivized to improve the security of the devices that they connect to their networks (in addition to more effectively securing the networks to which they connect these devices). As the entity who purchases and ultimately connects IoT devices to the network, the consumer appears well-situated to ensure the security of the IoT devices on their respective networks. Unfortunately, the picture is a bit more nuanced. First, consumers typically lack either the aptitude or interest (or both!) to secure either their own networks or the devices that they connect to them. Home broadband Internet access users have generally proved to be poor at applying software updates in a timely fashion, for example, and have been equally delinquent in securing their home networks. Even skilled network administrators regularly face network misconfigurations, attacks, and data breaches. Second, in many cases, users may lack the incentives to ensure that their devices are secure. In the case of the Mirai botnet, for example, consumers did not directly face the brunt of the attack; rather, the ultimate victims of the attack were DNS service providers and, indirectly, online service providers such as Twitter. To the first order, consumers suffered little direct consequence as a result of insecure devices on their networks.

Consumers’ misaligned incentives suggest several possible courses of action. One approach might involve placing some responsibility or liability on consumers for the devices that they connect to the network, in the same way that a citizen might be fined for other transgressions that have externalities (e.g., fines for noise or environmental pollution). Alternatively, Internet service providers (or another entity) might offer users a credit for purchasing and connecting only devices that it pass certification; another variation of this approach might require users to purchase ”Internet insurance” from their Internet service providers that could help offset the cost of future attacks. Consumers might receive credits or lower premiums based on the risk associated with their behavior (i.e., their software update practices, results from security audits of devices that they connect to the network).

A third stakeholder to consider is the Internet service provider (ISP), who provides Internet connectivity to the consumer. The ISP has considerable incentives to ensure that the devices that its customer connects to the network are secure: insecure devices increase the presence of attack traffic and may ultimately degrade Internet service or performance for the rest of the ISPs’ customers. From a technical perspective, the ISP is also in a uniquely effective position to detect and squelch attack traffic coming from IoT devices. Yet, relying on the ISP alone to protect the network against insecure IoT devices is fraught with non-technical complications. Specifically, while the ISP could technically defend against an attack by disconnecting or firewalling consumer devices that are launching attacks, such an approach will certainly result in increased complaints and technical support calls from customers, who connect devices to the network and simply expect them to work. Second, many of the technical capabilities that an ISP might have at its disposal (e.g., the ability to identify attack traffic coming from a specific device) introduce serious privacy concerns. For example, being able to alert a customer to (say) a compromised baby monitor requires the ISP to know (and document) that a consumer has such a device in the first place.

Ultimately, managing the increased risks associated with insecure IoT devices may require action from all three stakeholders. Some of the salient questions will concern how the risks can be best balanced against the higher operational costs that will be associated with improving security, as well as who will ultimately bear these responsibilities and costs.

Improving Infrastructure Resilience

In addition to improving defenses against the insecure devices themselves, it is also critical to determine how to better build resilience into the underlying Internet infrastructure to cope with these attacks. If one views the occasional IoT-based attack inevitable to some degree, one major concern is ensuring that the Internet Infrastructure (and the associated cyberphysical infrastructure) remains both secure and available in the face of attack. In the case of the Mirai attack on Dyn, for example, the severity of the attack was exacerbated by the fact that many online services depended on the infrastructure that was attacked. Computer scientists and Internet engineers should be thinking about technologies that can both potentially decouple these underlying dependencies and ensure that the infrastructure itself remains secure even in the event that regulatory or legal levers fail to prevent every attack. One possibility that we are exploring, for example, is the role that an automated home network firewall could play in (1) help- ing users keep better inventory of connected IoT devices; (2) providing users both visibility into and control over the traffic flows that these devices send.

Summary

Improving the resilience of the Internet and cyberphysical infrastructure in the face of insecure IoT devices will require a combination of technical and regulatory mechanisms. Engineers and regulators will need to work together to improve security and privacy of the Internet of Things. Engineers must continue to advance the state of the art in technologies ranging from lightweight encryption to statistical network anomaly detection to help reduce risk; similarly, engineers must design the network to improve resilience in the face of the increased risk of attack. On the other hand, realizing these advances in deployment will require the appropriate alignment of incentives, so that the parties that introduce risks are more aligned with those who bear the costs of the resulting attacks.

Regulation and Anti-Regulation

[Hi, Freedom to Tinker readers. I’m back at Princeton, having completed my tour of duty as Deputy U.S. CTO, so I can resume writing here. I’ll start with some posts on specific topics, like the one below. As time goes on, I’ll have a lot more to say about what I learned.  –Ed Felten]

Politicians often talk about regulation as hindering business and economic development. Witness President Trump’s executive order  that tries to reduce the number of Federal regulations. Sometimes regulation inhibits innovation and limits freedom of action. But often regulation acts to open up new opportunities.

A good example is the FAA’s “Part 107” rule that was announced last summer. This rule established requirements for commercial flights of drones up to 55 pounds. For the first time, commercial flights became possible without requiring special permission from the FAA, as long as certain restrictions were followed: fly below 400 feet; avoid airports and other special facilities; don’t fly at night; don’t fly over people; and maintain visual line of sight to the drone.

Because flying aircraft in the national airspace is forbidden by default, for obvious safety reasons, regulation that permits flight, within limits, has the effect of expanding rather than reducing what companies and individuals can do. Part 107 made more types of drone flights legal.  This has already been an important enabler of beneficial innovation and use of drones.

But the FAA’s work is not done. The agency had been planning a series of follow-on rules designed to relax the boundaries of Part 107, to allow flight over people, beyond visual line of sight, and so on, as it became clear how to do so safely.  

Will the new executive order make this more difficult?  It’s hard to tell, because many aspects of the order are unclear or await further clarification from the Office of Management and Budget.  But a policy that creates new barriers to the FAA responsibly loosening the restrictions on drone flights will not increase freedom and will not benefit the American people.

I hope the interpretation and implementation of the new executive order accounts for the full range of regulatory actions.  A policy that starts out assuming that regulation limits action too much, and thereby inhibits innovation and economic growth, may or may not be correct. But a policy that tries to prevent all action by regulatory agencies cannot be the right approach for the American people, especially if the goal is to reduce the burden imposed by regulation.