What Can We Do About Superfish?

Perhaps the greatest question about Superfish is what can we do about it. The first response is to throw technology at it.

The challenge here is that the technology used by Superfish has legitimate uses:

  • The core Superfish application is interesting – using image analysis to deconstruct a product image and search for similar products is actually quite ingenious! I have no reservations about this if it is an application a user consciously selects and installs and deliberately uses.
  • Changing the html data returned by a web site has many uses – for example, ad blocking and script blocking tools change the web site. Even deleting tracking cookies can be considered changing the web site! Having said that, changing the contents of a web site is a very slippery slope. And I have real problems with inserting ads in a web site or changing the content of the web site without making it extremely clear this is occurring.
  • Reading the data being exchanged with other sites is needed for firewalls and other security products.
  • Creating your own certificates is a part of many applications. However, I can’t think of many cases where it is appropriate to install a root certificate – this is powerful and dangerous.
  • Even decrypting and re-encrypting web traffic has its place in proxies, especially in corporate environments.

The real problem with Superfish is how the combination of things comes together and is used. And quality of implementation – many reports indicate poor implementation practices, such as a single insecure password for the entire root certificate infrastructure. It doesn’t matter what encryption algorithm you are using if your master password is the name of your company!

Attempting a straight technology fix will lead to “throwing the baby out with the bath water” for several valuable technologies. And a technical fix for this specific case won’t stop the next one.

The underlying issue is how these technologies are implemented and used. Attempting to fix this through technology is doomed to failure and will likely make things worse.

Yes, there is a place for technology improvements. We should be using dnssec to make sure dns information is valid. Stronger ways of validating certificate authenticity would be valuable – someone suggested DANE in one of the comments. DANE involves including the SSL certificate in the dns records for a domain. In combination with dnssec it gives you higher confidence that you are talking to the site you think you are, using the right SSL certificate. The issue here is that it requires companies to include this information in their dns records.

The underlying questions involve trust and law as well as technology. To function, you need to be able to trust people – in this case Lenovo – to do the right thing. It is clear that many people feel that Lenovo has violated their trust. It is appropriate to hold Lenovo responsible for this.

The other avenue is legal. We have laws regulate behavior and to hold people and companies responsible for their actions. Violating these regulations, regardless of the technology used, can and should be addressed through the legal system.

At the end of the day, the key issues are trust, transparency, choice, and following the law. When someone violates these they should expect to be held accountable and to pay a price in the market.

About Russell Doty

A technology strategist and product manager at Red Hat, working on the next generation of open source systems.
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