Cover your mouth when you sneeze

I’ve visited quite a few countries in Asia over the last two years. In the various airports I passed through I often saw people wearing surgical masks. I also saw “fever checkpoints” in most major airports. These checkpoints have infrared cameras that show a thermal false-colour picture of passengers as they are funneled through immigration. The signs surrounding the checkpoints indicated that the purpose was to identify people with a fever so as to screen for various types of flu (avian or other).

This is classic perimeter control, network access control (NAC) even, applied in the real world. Pre-admission checks for specific indicators of infection, with a quarantine area for suspected carriers of disease. Technology imitates nature and so technologists see their own work patterns reflected in nature. For a security professional, airports are always a great place to study.

The most interesting and shocking aspect was seeing hundreds of people wear surgical or simple cotton masks in airports all across Asia. The reality of avian flu was manifest everywhere around me, not only by the masks but also by the simple normalcy of them. No one would look twice at someone wearing a mask in Hong Kong , but I can’t help but imagine that if I wore a mask in New York I would at minimum get stared at and at worst trigger a panic.

A few weeks later I passed through Japan. Once again I saw people wearing masks. But unlike other places in Asia, there was usually only a single “masked” individual in any group. Where in other countries, an entire family might transit an airport like a surgical team on a code-blue response, in Japan you would only see a single family member wearing a mask. Eventually, after reading a bit I found out that this had very little to do with avian flu. In Japan, it is customary to wear a mask if one is sick so as not to infect others. Unlike the groups I saw trying to avoid inhaling airport air, the Japanese mask-wearers were actually protecting us from their sneezes and coughs. I don’t claim to understand much about the Japanese culture, but I do see a strong cultural theme of social responsibility in many things I have read about Japan.

A very interesting parallel could be made for information security. Most of our malware defenses are individual and focused on protecting a system or group from external attacks. NAC and antivirus fit this model. What we don’t seem to have much is communal defense. It is very rare to find a system that is equally concerned with outgoing traffic and the impact it has on others.

The two rules of flu season are: Wash your hands, and cover your mouth when sneezing or coughing. Yet on the Internet, while we do a lot of hand-washing by inspecting incoming traffic, we do very little to protect others from our traffic expectorations. As a result, botnets spewing spam and distributed denial of service attacks are growing at alarming rates.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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