MiFID2 and the fragility of time protocols

TimeKeeper incorporates a defense-in-depth design to protect it from deliberate security attacks and errors due to equipment failure or misconfiguration. This engineering approach was born out of a conviction that precise time synchronization would become a business and regulatory imperative.

  1. Recent disclosures of still more security problems in the NTPd implementation of NTP show how vulnerable time synchronization can be without proper attention to security. PTPd and related implementations of the PTP standard have similar vulnerabilities.
  2. Security and general failure tolerance should be on the minds of firms that are considering how to comply with the MiFID2 rules because time synchronization provides both a broad attack surface and a single point of failure unless properly implemented.

The first step towards time non-naive time synchronization is a skeptical attitude on the parts of IT managers and developers. Ask the right questions at acquisition and design time to prevent unpleasant surprises later.

fragile

One of the most dangerous aspects of the just disclosed NTPd exploit is that NTPd will accept a message from any random source telling it to stop synchronizing with its actual time sources. Remember, NTPd is an implementation of NTP, other implementations may not suffer from the same flaw. That d is easy to overlook, but it’s key. TimeKeeper’s NTP and PTP implementations will, for example, ignore commands that do not come from the associated time source and will apply analytical skepticism to commands that do appear to come from the source. TimeKeeper dismisses many of these types of attacks immediately and will start throwing off alerts to provoke automated and human counter-measures. The strongest protection TimeKeeper offers, however, comes from its multi-source capabilities that allow it to compare multiple time sources in real-time and reject a primary source that has strayed.

Correct time travels a long, complex path from a source such as a GPS receiver or a feed like the one British Telecom is now providing. Among the questions system designers need to ask are the following two.

  1. Is the chain between source and client safeguarded comprehensively and instrumented end-to-end?
  2. Is there a way of cross-checking sources against other sources and rejecting bad sources?

Without positive answers to both of these questions, the time distribution technology is inherently fragile and robust MiFID2 timestamp compliance will be unavailable.

I’m going to look at MiFID2 timestamp requirements in more detail in later posts and will also discuss how poorly designed security solutions can create more problems and some of the specific issues in securing time feeds.