Security: A Question of Balance

According to, Ivan Krstić, Director of Security Architecture for the One Laptop Per Child project, used a keynote speech at AusCERT 2007 to criticize the architecture of modern operating systems, which allow every application to run with maximum access rights to the machine.

This is of course a topic that exercises many security managers these days, since there are so many things that a multimedia PC can do today, including playing, recording and editing music & video; creating and editing images and text; phoning, instant messaging and video calling. What is more there are vast numbers of applications that can be rapidly bought and downloaded from the Internet, giving near instant on-demand installation of nearly any type of application. For convenience, most users run in administrator mode all the time, as it avoids answering pesky questions when we want to install and gratify our need for new software.

Many VoIP users run softphones on their PCs. Softphones are cheap, and can be extremely convenient to use. They also create new possibilities, like being able to record calls or teleconferences without spending a lot of money on recording hardware and software. From a security point-of-view, of course, this is a risk, since the softphone can control all the facilities of your PC, has access to the disk drive, and could potentially record audio, or perhaps even all LAN traffic, without you knowing. From a LAN architectural point of view, some experts say that you should use VLANs, so that VoIP phone handsets and PCs cannot interact with each others’ traffic. This would avoid a PC being able to initiate SIP calls (if, say, a malicious user wanted to run some SIP scanning software on a machine), but if you want the convenience of running softphones, then the PCs must be able to make SIP calls, so really VLANs are out.

So once again it really comes down to security versus convenience. We can lock down PCs completely and make them “safe”, but then you could argue that users will be less productive, if the IS department must get involved whenever any new thing will be installed. At the other end of the scale, letting users install everything they want, from wherever, whenever they feel like it, is a recipe for a security disaster. It’s a balance, and that is one of the reasons that security is a difficult area.

To talk about the One Laptop Per Child project for a moment, this is an effort to build a $100 laptop (the XO) that can be made in the millions to provide to school children everywhere. If you haven’t heard of this before, I strongly recommend that you watch the video from TED 2006 where Nicholas Negroponte explains what they are trying to do. A very worthwhile project and this video is 18 minutes of gold dust. Describing one of their pilot projects in a remote village Cambodia, Negroponte says of the children with their laptops: “They only know Skype, they’ve never heard of telephony.”