Periodically I read about efforts by China, or Russia, or North Korea, or other countries to replace American software with indigenous or semi-indigenous alternatives. I then reply via Twitter that I love the idea, with a short reason why. This post will list the top five reasons why I want China and other likely targets of American foreign intelligence collection to run their own software.
1. Many (most?) non-US software companies write lousy code. The US is by no means perfect, but our developers and processes generally appear to be superior to foreign indigenous efforts. Cisco vs Huawei is a good example. Cisco has plenty of problems, but it has processes in place to manage them, plus secure code development practices. Lousy indigenous code means it is easier for American intelligence agencies to penetrate foreign targets. (An example of a foreign country that excels in writing code is Israel, but thankfully it is not the same sort of priority target like China, Russia, or North Korea.)
2. Many (most?) non-US enterprises are 5-10 years behind US security practices. Even if a foreign target runs decent native code, the IT processes maintaining that code are lagging compared to American counterparts. Again, the US has not solved this problem by any stretch of the imagination. However, relatively speaking, American inventory management, patch management, and security operations have the edge over foreign intelligence targets. Because non-US enterprises running indigenous code will not necessarily be able to benefit from American expertise (as they might if they were running American code), these deficiencies will make them easier targets for foreign exploitation.
3. Foreign targets running foreign code is win-win for American intel and enterprises. The current vulnerability equities process (VEP) puts American intelligence agencies in a quandary. The IC develops a zero-day exploit for a vulnerability, say for use against Cisco routers. American and Chinese organizations use Cisco routers. Should the IC sit on the vulnerability in order to maintain access to foreign targets, or should it release the vulnerability to Cisco to enable patching and thereby protect American and foreign systems?
This dilemma disappears in a world where foreign targets run indigenous software. If the IC identifies a vulnerability in Cisco software, and the majority of its targets run non-Cisco software, then the IC is more likely (or should be pushed to be more likely) to assist with patching the vulnerable software. Meanwhile, the IC continues to exploit Huawei or other products at its leisure.
4. Writing and running indigenous code is the fastest way to improve. When foreign countries essentially outsource their IT to vendors, they become program managers. They lose or never develop any ability to write and run quality software. Writing and running your own code will enroll foreign organizations in the security school of hard knocks. American intel will have a field day for 3-5 years against these targets, as they flail around in a perpetual state of compromise. However, if they devote the proper native resources and attention, they will learn from their mistakes. They will write and run better software. Now, this means they will become harder targets for American intel, but American intel will retain the advantage of point 3.
5. Trustworthy indigenous code will promote international stability. Countries like China feel especially vulnerable to American exploitation. They have every reason to be scared. They run code written by other organizations. They don’t patch it or manage it well. Their security operations stink. The American intel community could initiate a complete moratorium on hacking China, and the Chinese would still be ravaged by other countries or criminal hackers, all the while likely blaming American intel. They would not be able to assess the situation. This makes for a very unstable situation.
Therefore, countries like China and others are going down the indigenous software path. They understand that software, not oil as Daniel Yergen once wrote, is now the “commanding heights” of the economy. Pursuing this course will subject these countries to many years of pain. However, in the end I believe it will yield a more stable situation. These countries should begin to perceive that they are less vulnerable. They will experience their own vulnerability equity process. They will be more aware and less paranoid.
In this respect, indigenous software is a win for global politics. The losers, of course, are global software companies. Foreign countries will continue to make short-term deals to suck intellectual property and expertise from American software companies, before discarding them on the side of Al Gore’s information highway.
One final point — a way foreign companies could jump-start their indigenous efforts would be to leverage open source software. I doubt they would necessarily honor licenses which require sharing improvements with the open source community. However, open source would give foreign organizations the visibility they need and access to expertise that they lack. Microsoft’s shared source and similar programs were a step in this direction, but I suggest foreign organizations adopt open source instead.
Now, widespread open source adoption by foreign intelligence targets would erode the advantages for American intel that I explained in point 3. I’m betting that foreign leaders are likely similar to Americans in that they tend to not trust open source, and prefer to roll their own and hold vendors accountable. Therefore I’m not that worried, from an American intel perspective, about point 3 being vastly eroded by widespread foreign open source adoption.
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