Angry Birds and Security
There are many exciting projects going on at my new company, so when I started this post I thought I might talk about the new security website we’re building or how we’re expanding our security offerings in 2012. But then I realized it’s December and December blog reading should be fun… so you get a post about improving your security with strategy lessons taken from Angry Birds!
In the world of Angry Birds, we have a small group of birds that are serially preyed upon by a kleptocratic monarchy of green pigs. In this world, the pigs steal the birds’ eggs and hide them in poorly-constructed shelters while the birds fling themselves at the pigs in efforts of destruction. Despite this vicious onslaught perpetrated by the birds, the pigs continue in their egg thievery, thereby allowing for a continuing series of episodes.
Clearly, there is room for improvement in terms of both offense and defense.
Let’s start by analyzing the Pig Empire. Their goal is to obtain eggs. It is implied they are for eating, raising the uncomfortable question as to where the pigs get their bacon. However, they are inefficient. If they were to take a lesson or two from real-life attackers, they would change their operations in the following ways:
The root of their’ constant downfall is they expend insufficient effort on shelter construction. Even a cursory inspection of history would indicate a high likelihood of retaliatory avian attack, so it would be wise to prepare. The average shelter is shabbily built and falls to a mere handful of birds. If the pigs focused on quality over quantity, they could invest in sturdier materials and protect far more pigs. Building defenses prior to egg theft would result in a much more successful attack as well.
Another problem facing the pigs is the birds attack using a massive slingshot. I presume this provides additional impact force, but it does introduce a point of weakness. Modern attackers often focus on crippling their target’s ability to retaliate. In other words, if the pigs simply stole the slingshots when they stole the eggs, the birds would be seriously hampered in their efforts to counter-attack.
3) Sacrificial Hierarchy
It appears as though the pigs exist within a hierarchy consisting of a large king pig, a handful of mature leader pigs, some adult pigs and a large number of little pigs (that presumably cry “wee wee wee” all the way home). Malware teams have similar hierarchies, with the people funding development at the top, developers and project leaders below them, marketers below that and finally, those responsible for smuggling the money from your bank account overseas. If the pigs were to learn from this, they would hide their king and leaders in the best shelters possible, well out of reach of the birds, and draw their fire with an array of poorly defended little pigs. This structure allows for organizational continuity favoring the pigs and causes the birds to burn their resources inefficiently.
The birds seem to be structured as a loose confederation. Much in the way business owners band together to discuss and develop shared defenses, birds of more than one feather collaborate to combat the pigs’ designs. Just as there is room for improvement on the part of the pigs, there are areas where the birds could learn from the advice we give our clients as well.
1) Reduce Scope
First of all, the birds face the fundamental problem of constantly losing their eggs. The easiest way to protect against fundamental issues is to narrow the scope. If you’re protecting credit cards or health records, this means identifying the data and centralizing it for better protection. Now, in the case of eggs, there is clearly some risk from putting all one’s eggs in the same basket, but there is no rule that scope has to be limited that far. It could be limited to two or even three baskets. The key is to limit the scope as far as you can and then to boost the defenses around that area.
2) Improved Retaliation
Surprisingly, while the world of Angry Birds has a great many birds, none of them seem to be able to fly. This, as noted earlier, places them at significant risk from the loss of their slingshot. It also means their attacks must all originate from a single point. In the business world, we have several areas from which we can detect and respond to attacks. We detect attacks with technology, forward issues to security teams and law enforcement and, where needed, involve a judicial system. Similarly, an avian attack should be mounted from numerous locations. It should not require a specific bird attack from the East. Any flight-capabable bird should be able to respond to attack.
Agile security involves being aware of your environment, your capabilities and your attackers’ capabilities. You can then make defense plans and execute quickly in the case of attack. There are times when the appropriate response is to tighten security, others when one should involve law enforcement and still others where it makes sense to allow the attack and learn as much from it as you can.
In the case of the birds, while they seem to be masters of resource utilization (expending minimum force to achieve their goals), there is still room for improvement. Their technique works because they face an enemy that fails to adapt. If this ever changes though, it would be impossible to regain the eggs and the birds’ continued existence would be at risk. Simply reviewing the Pig Empire defenses and dynamically selecting the number, species and order of attack would allow a significant increase in agility.
Perfect security is impossible so there are inevitable flaws on both the part of the birds and the pigs. While today’s birds are able to achieve their goals, if the enemy boosts their capabilities, the birds’ limited structure puts them at serious risk. The problem is that eggs keep getting stolen. If the birds improve their defensive strategy to such a point that egg theft drops significantly, the pigs might find it substantially easier to obtain sustenance from another source… Falldown 3D, perhaps.
Launching attacks is easier than defending against them. An attacker must only succeed once, but a good defender has to be vigilant all the time. A small improvement on the part of the pigs’ attack would place the birds themselves at risk of extinction. So it is essential that the birds improve their defenses and capabilities. With luck, they’ll manage to do this before things reach a point of criticality.
(This post originally published at the RJS Informer)