Invasion

If someone breaks into your house or, worse, invades it while you are there, you will feel a variety of strong emotions including outrage, anger, and fear. It may be hard to feel safe there again. A few months ago, our neighborhood suffered a rash of mid-day burglaries–kick in the front door in the middle of the day while everyone is away and steal whatever you can that you can sell quickly, and generally trash the place as you are going through it. (The police told us that the front doors were heroin addicts. The rash of auto burglaries that we had at the same time were meth addicts.) One family across the street was broken into twice–once while the kids were at home. They moved to a gated community.

I haven’t personally had this experience. After years in security, I guess I know how to make my house look like a harder target than my neighbor’s house. But, I have a pretty good understanding of how they feel. In our current (over-) connected society, we can have the same feelings when our computers are invaded. I once had the experience of having my computer broken into while I was sitting in front of it. I didn’t really feel violated so much as insulted. “How could you. I’m using this now. How stupid do you think I am?” (“pretty stupid.”) In the end I felt pretty good about that incident. Using my superpowers, I removed the intruder, cleaned up his mess, and discovered and closed the hole he had used to get in, all within an hour.

Today things are different from those days long gone. Today I build and operate networks of computers “in the cloud,” somewhat freed from the computer under my desk (but not from a bunch of laptops). I get the computing horsepower I need from a large vendor of “Infrastructure as a Service” (IaaS in the industry jargon). If I need a new machine for an experiment, I ask for one and 5 minutes later, I have one. If after a couple of hours, I’m through with the new machine, I throw it away. There is some cost involved, but the machine I used for a couple of hours costs far less than my time, and way less than the cost of having a spare piece of hardware laying around. (If you want to learn a little bit more about how cloud computing works, you can look here.)

Last week, I had a strange experience. I received a notice that one of my cloud machines had been used in an attack on somebody else’s computers. Naturally they wanted to know what I was going to do about that. That part of the story is not unusual. The unusual part is how I felt about the incident. This was not a break-in at my house. It was not a break-in of my computer. But, there was a break-in, and I still felt angry and violated. I wanted to understand what had happened and make sure it could not happen again. I wanted to catch that hacker and step on their fingers (the tools of their trade). I wanted to make sure they would never again disrupt the flow of my well-ordered life.

A few days later, I see how strange this was. It’s not like some real possession was broken into or attacked. There is no physical machine anywhere in sight. There was nothing that was “mine” there except for some work 5 years ago. And yet, I have this feeling of violation. Why? I don’t really understand this. But, I do better understand the feelings op people who have actually been violated. It’s not a small issue, and could have lasting repercussions.

I also felt curiosity. My first instinct was to get on the machine and look around to see how they had gotten in. But, there was a problem with that. I built this machine almost 5 years ago and really hadn’t been back to it since then, and I couldn’t remember how to get on (which only convinced me even more that someone had taken it over). There really is a right way to deal with these incidents, and I had the luxury of being able to use it; I notified the right people, shut the machine down, and went to dinner.

I did get on the machine the next day and looked around. I found that the machine was under attack almost continuously, but from people who really need to get a life. I’m happy with attacks from the terminally stupid (the attackers who try the same thing over and over again, sometimes for hours or even days, in the hope that something will be different the next time). But, I didn’t find the attacker who succeeded, and I’m not happy about that. That means I would never know if I had successfully cleaned up the machine.

In the end, I chose the path of no resistance–preserve the data I’m trying to serve from the machine and throw everything else away. Rebuild the machine from the ground up on a new, more secure platform and move on. This is a cloud computing path I could not have chosen with a non-cloud machine. The attacks are inevitable and continuous, and some are bound to succeed. The cloud infrastructure has given me a new, less stressful way to respond, and I am happy about that.

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