cyber-security. you’re doing it very wrong.

June 19, 2010

Just when I think that politicians can’t be any more disappointing than they are today, and there’s nothing they could do to make themselves look even more clueless and inept, Joe Lieberman manages to come up a bill so utterly brain dead, it’s hard not to shudder in fear that we actually reward this kind of ineptitude with public funds and expect people like this to effectively run a nation. What’s so amazingly ridiculous about Lieberman’s proposal? It would give the executive branch the authority to throttle, filter, and even disable the internet to the entire nation under the excuse of national security. Ever worse, the bill has actual co-sponsors, despite being written by someone who apparently seems to think that the internet is “just a series of tubes,” and you can just yank on a valve and shut the whole thing off. To actually shut off internet access, you’d need to cut all those undersea communication lines shown in a comprehensive illustration appearing on the Guardian

True, you can slow down and even disable internet access by setting up a firewall which could block a search query, or even access to certain sites. But you determine access rights by IP addresses, more specifically, IP address ranges associated with a particular country. Anyone see the weakness in this strategy already? Let me to give you a hint. The data exchange protocols we collectively know as the internet and the web were built on networks originally designed to coordinate military commands. They’re built with redundancy in mind and a blocked range of IP addresses isn’t actually that big of a problem. By manipulating your IP address through a proxy, you could circumvent even a national firewall. Even if all those immense, $500 billion undersea cables traveling to and from your country were cut, you could get still get satellite-based web access and use a proxy to get on the web. In other words, it’s utterly impossible to shut down the internet for those who have a clue as to how computers and computer networks actually work. Any action to slow down or shut off web access is a problem only for casual users rather than the people from whom you’d actually want to protect your assets.

We’ve already discussed how unrealistic it is to militarize the web as we know it to track down a squad of foreign hackers before they strike despite the rosy picture being painted by some defense contractors, and Lieberman’s proposal seems firmly stuck in the territory of misconceptions and ignorance. Maybe if he had a chat with someone with a working knowledge of the networks used by the internet rather than someone like Michael McConnell, he wouldn’t have produced something this ridiculous. Or maybe he would anyway since it seems that while we’re appointing charismatic and talkative know-nothings to leadership positions, they start convincing themselves that they’re actually experts, as shown by studies into the subject, and don’t need the advice of those who actually do understand the technical concepts in question. So now, his bill is being used by an Australian media outlet to justify its government’s own growing interest in internet filters, and being trotted across right wing blogs where the narrative is warped from an example of Lieberman’s, Rockefeller’s and Showe’s collective ineptitude and as another disturbing sign of dangerous ignorance in Congress, into a story of how Obama supposedly wants to censor the web to silence Tea Party activists. I’d say to expect a full on paranoid rant from Glenn Beck on the subject any day now…

My guess is that this bill will die a horrible death without even being considered to be worthy of a vote, but just the fact that it was even conceived to give fodder to conspiracy theorists and took a dip into the territory on par with the rationale behind the Great Firewall of China, should be disturbing. We have a senator who hasn’t a clue what he’s doing writing legislation that could profoundly affect one of the most tech-dependent nations in the world and chairing the Homeland Security committee, and we expect the nation to be safe and adequately deal with real threats? For some reason, I really don’t feel any safer with “experts” like this in charge…

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  • Pierce R. Butler

    US wingnuts are also blithering about “a full-scale power grab over the content that you will be allowed to see on the Internet” supposedly being orchestrated by the Federal Communications Commission.

    Other than quotations from Rep. John Boehner – not a useful source for reliable information – this particular blitz has no supporting details, and I’ve chased too many of these wild geese to feel like bothering with this one tonight.

    Bear in mind that these same sources are also currently describing a UN proposal to limit sales of shoulder-launched anti-aircraft rockets, RPGs, and machine guns to terrorist groups as a plan for the UN to seize personal handguns in the US, and the Senate’s cap-and-trade legislation as a means whereby “the government may literally start taxing us for the very air we exhale”.

    We have a major current of crazy flowing through US politics these days: Lieberman is just one of the more visible bumps on the tip of the iceberg.

  • Lieberman is a two faced menace in just about everything he does. Being a Connecticut resident, I can tell that he’s frighteningly under-informed about most of the things he starts crusades about. He’s well known for being very anti-video game and anti-movie/tv and has made plenty of comments that suggest he would be happy to enact ridiculous limitations on content and perhaps even full censorship. And all of his speeches and discussions on film, television and video game production demonstrate a complete lack of understanding about them and their importance in the economy.

    That he’s now trying to set up a system that could seriously restrict the content people are able to access on the internet, and apparently has no idea how little it would do to deter those who are actually a threat comes as no surprise. But then, that’s just Joe being Joe.

    I can’t stand him being in a position of power. When he lost the primary to Ned Lamont a few years ago for the Democratic nomination, he gave a speech shortly ahead of time vowing to never stop being a Democrat and to do what’s best for the party, figuring Lamont wasn’t a serious threat. When he lost, it took all of thirty seconds for him to walk up to a podium and announce his switch from the Democratic party to an independent party because it was supposedly what was best for the state.

    He’s the worst kind of politician and it’s a shame, since once upon a time he was actually pretty good at his job.

  • Bruce Coulson

    Most leaders are 1-2 generations behind in their understanding of technology, at best. So, the fact that Senator Lieberman doesn’t have the vaguest idea of how the internet works isn’t really that surprising.

    Not surprising, but sadder, is the fact that the Senator is advocating a bill that, on the surface, appears to violate the Constitution on multiple fundamental levels. Using fear as an excuse for a grab for power/control is very common, but still depressing when it happens. The greatest threat to our elected officials, of course, is not overseas terrorists, but our own citizens. Controlling the flow of information and being able to crack down on journalists and investigators is vital.

  • Michal

    Going back in history (to the 19th century) this did happen. Britain controlled most of the world’s undersea cables back then (pre-digital, of course, but still described as the nervous system of the world). There was an international (though mostly unwritten) agreement that countries would respect each others communications, political and commercial, but during the Boer War in South Africa Britain did block and delay and censor transmissons to Europe. The result was a rush by other countries to develop their own cable systems and (I think, though I’m not sure) helped push research into wireless technology.

  • Oday

    From Lieberman, I would expect nothing less.

  • Greg Fish

    Controlling the flow of information and being able to crack down on journalists and investigators is vital.

    I very highly doubt that Lieberman is trying to institute some sort of crackdown on the media. You can’t shut off the web for the reasons explained above, you can’t just stop people from getting the information they want unless you outright refused to build the infrastructure required for internet access in the first place (as done by North Korea’s tyrants), and whatever secrets you’re hiding will eventually leak out.

    It’s far more likely that Lieberman is just clueless and came up with this bill after he read something about cyber-wars in Foreign Policy or a defense contractor, decided he didn’t need to ask anyone who might know a thing or two about computers, and wanted to present himself as a watchful guardian on the nation’s security.

    But what I do find rather odd is that the reports are only really grabbing the headlines in Australia, used to imply that whatever efforts are taken by Rudd’s government to censor and blacklist certain objectionable sites is nothing compared to what the U.S. is supposedly planning to do with its citizens’ internet access. It’s almost like a case study for pro-censorship propaganda via the two-wrongs-make-a-right fallacy…

  • Bruce Coulson

    You can’t shut off the internet; but do the people who are proposing this (and supporting it) understand that? I was being a bit snarky; but controlling access to information has become a standard management technique.

    Like most bills, I’m sure it has a lot of origins. There may be actual fears of ‘cyber-terrorism’ and the consideration that in such an event, rapid response would be required. (The idea of letting local authorities/managers make the decision to shut off access to the web in such an event was inconceivable, I’m sure.) There’s also the ‘fear factor’; a frightened populace is less likely to question actions and measures taken ‘to protect them’. But even if we grant Senator Lieberman the best of intentions in proposing this bill, I’m quite sure he’s intelligent enough to see the other advantages such power would have.

    But again; much of this is coming from unavoidable ignorance. If you’re spending your time learning and practicing the means to gain political power, you’re not learning how technology works. By the time you actually are in a position of power, your knowledge of ‘technology’ stems from your days in college 20-40 years ago.

    There’s also a natural arrogance of power. You employ people to get things done for you, not to tell you you can’t do something. And those people like to stay employed, which means they’re reluctant to tell their boss “What you’re asking for can’t be done.”