Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Containers over systemd

“Systemd will solve all your problems,” they said.

Having used a number of systemd’s security features to configure a service, I am beginning to suspect everyone uses containers because container runtimes are trying to be secure already.

It's possible to improve the security of a service with systemd, of course.  I’ve worked hard at it.  But in the end, over half the *.service file is consumed with “trying to build my own container out of systemd directives.”  ProtectHome, ProtectSystem, ProtectKernelTunables, Protect This, Protect That, blah blah blah.  The process starts from insecure by default, and then asks me to layer on every individual protection.  This is exactly the sort of thing Linux zealots used to yell at Microsoft about.  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

But I digress.  I ended up with an excessively long systemd service configuration file, and to apply that to any other service, there’s no option besides copying and pasting those directives.  With every release of systemd, I have to comb the man pages again to see what else is available now, and carefully apply that to every service file.  It’s not easy to tell whether the security posture is up-to-date when the policy is so verbose.

Whereas a container has an isolated filesystem (its image) already, so whole classes of configuration (ProtectHome, ProtectSystem, TemporaryFileSystem) become irrelevant.  On top of that, container runtimes start with a more limited set of privileges by default, instead of handing out CAP_SYS_ADMIN and leaving it up to the administrator to carefully disable it.  Escaping from the container runtime is considered a vulnerability; escaping from a poorly-secured systemd service is considered user error.

This is all orthogonal to “containers are interop”, but I think both forces are feeding the containerization craze.  I’m left with the feeling again that systemd should have been the “obvious correct choice,” except they decided usability didn’t matter.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

The world is turning upside-down (2006)

Editor's Note: this is a post from my old Serendipity weblog, "Pawprints of the Mind," which was originally posted nearly 14 years ago, on 2006-12-29. Since then, I can't help but notice that social media created itself on a Pull model—follow who you want—and then replaced it with algorithms to Push into that stream. The text below is reproduced verbatim from the original post.

In the beginning, Push dominated.

A company built a product, and it was Pushed to market. Long ago, newspapers pushed by paper boys on the street carried advertisements. Direct-mail catalogs, pushed through the postal service, were nothing but one long and comprehensive advertisement for the company who created it. The rise of radio and television, both one-way broadcast media, allowed advertisements to be pushed to millions at a time, quickly and easily. Movies and music are produced and pushed, and the producers hope they break even.

After a company pushed their product, they spent plenty of money watching what happened to the sales. Was it going to explode or tank? Was the initial 10,000 piece production run going to be liquidated, or was another run ten times the size waiting in the wings? There was no way to sense demand except to Push supply and watch what happened.

Inevitably, Push was brought to the new media: the Internet. Building on the ideas of direct mail, email lists formed. Spam happened. Spam filters happened. Better spam filters happened. But those may be only a temporary solution.

As Pushing got cheaper, more was pushed, until users fled the deluge. Too much yang leaves people wanting yin. Onto this stage stepped Pull.

Nobody knew it was Pull yet. It called itself RSS or reddit, and it was about users coming and getting it. No more HTML-heavy, graphic-packed email stuffed into their Inbox every other day to make up for the poor quality of the site's search capabilities. No more "Insert-Brand-Here Loyalty Updates". No more subscriptions, passwords, bounce processing, and unsubscribing. No more spam, because the provider no longer needs to know where to send anything; they just wait for users to come and get it.

Pull is about user control. Pull is about saying "I want that" and not having some gatekeeper in the way, trying to extract monopoly rents. This is what scares the recording industry; their value as gatekeepers is plunging as alternative ways of connecting bands and fans arise.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Can Micropayments Even Work? (2007)

Editor's Note: this is a post from my old Serendipity weblog, "Pawprints of the Mind," which was originally posted over 13 years ago, on 2007-05-13. The text below is reproduced verbatim from the original post.

(This is not entirely academic, as a current goal of my day job essentially amounts to implementing a micropayment system.)

I am beginning to believe that the fundamental problem behind micropayments as a viable option for widespread payment is that credit cards are effectively already micropayments. We're just spoiled by cash. Physical currency is limited by reality. There's not a limitless supply to steal, nor can it be readily created. Undetectable counterfeits cannot be manufactured by poking a few bits inside a computer. Rather, it's difficult to produce high-enough quality counterfeits, which is why good counterfeits only come in $100 notes. The run-of-the-mill counterfeiters are stuck trying to figure out how to make a passable $20 out of card stock or ordinary paper, because anything bigger is subject to too much scrutiny for their materials. (Even then, a local supermarket tests all those, pushing the bar down to $10.)

In essence, I suspect the cost of doing business with a credit card company is mostly the cost of implementing imaginary money securely. The more credit processing costs, the fewer shops join in, and the less of the currency marketshare the creditor ends up with. On the other hand, the services can't be priced so low as to be unprofitable. Not to mention, the more that people use their cards, the more interest the creditor can collect at little extra cost, as all the billing and accounting framework was already in place for that cardholder anyway. Charging less makes economic sense for them, even if they were a monopoly.

A credit card company ends up shaving a few percent off transactions made through them. Micropayments want to be the same thing, only smaller: shave a few percent off penny-sized transactions and make up for it by volume. But the micropayment competes with the credit gateways, if one of the main ways of getting money into the system is to purchase microcurrency on a credit card. Inside the system, the shaving has to be high enough to make up for the transaction cost of the microcurrency being bought and sold, as well as the real costs of doing the transaction and turning a profit.

And if micropayments are essentially equivalent to real currency, then they're also equivalently desirable for fraud, stealing, and counterfeiting: something the large creditors are spending plenty of money on for the best and brightest to counteract. This brings up another point: micropayments probably won't have the same amount of consumer trust as credit cards, because personal liability is legally limited to $50 on the cards. This is not the case for micropayments, which is going to make people not want to have too many of them at one time. That in turn limits the total amount of microcurrency that can be circulated, and restricts the market for higher-priced microsales.

Is it possible to best Visa and MasterCard at their own game?