Ahead of the Curve – Design Monday

Ahead of the Curve – Design Monday

The first computer screen font predated the personal computer by a decade.

The tech wasn’t about to cooperate. For those who weren’t around during the CRT (Cathode-ray tube) screen days, here’s the thing. CRTs, in the sixties, refreshed slowly, updated even slower, couldn’t draw curves, and could barely draw a pixel. Any sane person would stay away from them.

Enter Wim Crouwel. Crouwel saw the possibility of CRTs and glimpsed the future of computers. By accepting the CRTs limitations as creative constraints, Crouwel redesigned the alphabet with straight quick lines. The resulting font, New Alphabet, displayed clearly on the limited screens. Crouwel released New Alphabet in 1967. It was innovative. It was unreadable. But it made a statement. New Alphabet informed the designers of the personal computers. It took a decade. But when the Apple II, Commodore PET, and TRS-80 hit in 1977, each computer featured a CRT screen and a fully readable font. The possibility Crouwel saw had come true.

With all the talk about cyber security constantly changing, we’re surprising slow at adopting new and innovative controls. We give the same excuses Wim Crouwel would have heard from his peers: the technology isn’t ready, it’s too hard, it’s too new. I recall running into this when deploying firewalls in the early 2000s. An excellent control was egress filtering. Most thought about firewalls protecting traffic coming in. But by looking at traffic going out, we could stop malware and attackers from calling home. Most engineers didn’t want to do this because it was too hard. We did. And until most defenders adopted egress filtering, attackers didn’t bother working around it, so the simple control caught many a bad guy.

Early adoption of a control — doing something right but rare — is super effective against casual attackers and commodity attacks. It may be easily bypassed by advanced attackers or sophisticated tools, but the majority of the time organizations face more common threats. The control continues to be effective until many have adopted it. Consider:

Example 1) Mac OS X computers were more secure on the Intel platform from Windows when released in 2006. Macs had 8% of the market share by 2014 and little malware. By 2019, the share of the desktop market running Macs climbed to 17%. That same year, Windows had 5.8 malware detections per computer per year. Macs had nearly double, 11 malware detections per computer. Macs had great stopping power for thirteen years.

Example 2) Windows 10’s market share reached 25% by 2017. Windows 10 had a feature that auto-played image files like ISO. This was a great new feature for phishers because most spam filters blocked executables like EXE. In May 2017, criminals started repackaging their malicious EXEs in ISO files and sending them on through. Sure, some organizations were filtering ISOs. But most weren’t, at least, until 2019. When spam filters finally caught up, April 2019, criminals simply switched from ISO to IMG image files. But for nearly two years, a simple ISO filter had stopping power.

Example 3) One last example that’s near to my heart. When Microsoft Office 365 email launched in 2011, the early adopters quickly rolled out multi-factor authentication (MFA). Attacks reusing stolen credentials were easily blocked, stopping phishing for passwords. By 2019, MFA adoption on Office 365 email exceeded 20%. The criminals began to switch from trying to steal passwords to trying to steal the authentication tokens, thereby bypassing MFA altogether. Eight years. While MFA still has stopping power, the threats are beginning to adapt.

Wim Crouwel was a decade ahead of his time and his font never saw wide adoption. Though it did have a resurgence in popular culture in 1988, when Peter Saville and Brett Wickens used New Alphabet for Joy Division’s Substance album cover. Wide adoption wasn’t the point. Showing others the possibility of the new medium was, and at that, Crouwel succeeded.

When designing and implementing cyber security controls, Crouwel is an inspiration. The tech will not cooperate. The result won’t look normal. But doing something right but rare, adopting a security control ahead of the pack, has demonstrated stopping power. Because it’s right, it stops the common attacks. Because it’s rare, criminals aren’t incentivized to work around it. The early adopter strategy can give our organizations and advantage that lasts years.

Being ahead of the adoption curve is being ahead of the criminals.

New Alphabet font designed by Wim Crouwel

This article is part of a series on designing cyber security capabilities. To see other articles in the series, including a full list of design principles, click here.

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