Tag: Internet

This “Cyberwar” Is a Cybersnooze

The AP and other sources have been reporting on a “cyberattack” affecting South Korea and U.S. government Web sites, including the White House, Secret Service and Treasury Department.

Allegedly mounted by North Korea, this attack puts various “cyber” threats in perspective. Most Americans will probably not know about it, and the ones who do will learn of it by reading about it. Only a tiny percentage of people will notice the absence of the Web sites attacked. (An update to the story linked above notes that several agencies and entities “blunted” the attacks, as well-run Web sites will do.)

This is the face of “cyberwar,” which has little strategic value and little capacity to do real damage. This episode also underscores the fact that “cyberterrorism” cannot exist – because this kind of attack isn’t terrifying.

As I said in my recent testimony before the House Science Committee, it is important to secure web sites, data, and networks against all threats, but this can be done and is being done methodically and successfully – if imperfectly – by the distributed owners and controllers of all our nation’s “cyber” assets. Hyping threats like “cyberwar” and “cyberterror” is not helpful.

Some Thinking on “Cyber”

Last week, I had the opportunity to testify before the House Science Committee’s Subcommittee on Technology and Innovation on the topic of “cybersecurity.” I have been reluctant to opine on it because of its complexity, but I did issue a short piece a few months ago arguing against government-run cybersecurity. That piece was cited prominently in the White House’s “Cyberspace Policy Review” and – blamo! – I’m a cybersecurity expert.

Not really – but I have been forming some opinions at a high level of generality that are worth making available. They can be found in my testimony, but I’ll summarize them briefly here.

First, “cybersecurity” is a term so broad as to be meaningless. Yes, we are constructing a new “space” analogous to physical space using computers, networks, sensors, and data, but we can no more secure “cyberspace” in its entirety than we can secure planet Earth and the galaxy. Instead, we secure the discrete things that are important to us – houses, cars, buildings, power lines, roads, private information, money, and so on. And we secure these things in thousands of different ways. We should secure “cyberspace” the same way – thousands of different ways.

By “we,” of course, I don’t mean the collective. I mean that each owner or controller of a prized thing should look out for its security. It’s the responsibility of designers, builders, and owners of houses, for exmple, to ensure that they properly secure the goods kept inside. It’s the responsibility of individuals to secure the information they wish to keep private and the money they wish to keep. It is the responsibility of network operators to secure their networks, data holders to secure their data, and so on.

Second, “cyber” threats are being over-hyped by a variety of players in the public policy area. Invoking “cyberterrorism” or “cyberwar” is near-boilerplate in white papers addressing government cybersecurity policy, but there is very limited strategic logic to “cyberwarfare” (aside from attacking networks during actual war-time), and “cyberterrorism” is a near-impossibility. You’re not going to panic people – and that’s rather integral to terrorism – by knocking out the ATM network or some part of the power grid for a period of time.

(We weren’t short of careless discussions about defending against “cyber attack,” but L. Gordon Crovitz provided yet another example in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. As Ben Friedman pointed out, Evgeny Morozov has the better of it in the most recent Boston Review.)

This is not to deny the importance of securing digital infrastructure; it’s to say that it’s serious, not scary. Precipitous government cybersecurity policies – especially to address threats that don’t even have a strategic logic – would waste our wealth, confound innovation, and threaten civil liberties and privacy.

In the cacophony over cybersecurity, an important policy seems to be getting lost: keeping true critical infrastructure offline. I noted Senator Jay Rockefeller’s (D-WV) awesomely silly comments about cybersecurity a few months ago. They were animated by the premise that all the good things in our society should be connected to the Internet or managed via the Internet. This is not true. Removing true critical infrastructure from the Internet takes care of the lion’s share of the cybersecurity problem.

Since 9/11, the country has suffered significant “critical-infrastructure inflation” as companies gravitate to the special treatments and emoluments government gives owners of “critical” stuff. If “criticality” is to be a dividing line for how assets are treated, it should be tightly construed: If the loss of an asset would immediately and proximately threaten life or health, that makes it critical. If danger would materialize over time, that’s not critical infrastructure – the owners need to get good at promptly repairing their stuff. And proximity is an important limitation, too: The loss of electric power could kill people in hospitals, for example, but ensuring backup power at hospitals can intervene and relieve us of treating the entire power grid as “critical infrastructure,” with all the expense and governmental bloat that would entail.

So how do we improve the state of cybersecurity? It’s widely believed that we are behind on it. Rather than figuring out how to do cybersecurity – which is impossible – I urged the committee to consider what policies or legal mechanisms might get these problems figured out.

I talked about a hierarchy of sorts. First, contract and contract liability. The government is a substantial purchaser of technology products and services – and highly knowledgeable thanks to entities like the National Institutes of Standards and Technology. Yes, I would like it to be a smaller purchaser of just about everything, but while it is a large market actor, it can drive standards and practices (like secure settings by default) into the marketplace that redound to the benefit of the cybersecurity ecology. The government could also form contracts that rely on contract liability – when products or services fail to serve the purposes for which they’re intended, including security – sellers would lose money. That would focus them as well.

A prominent report by a working group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies – co-chaired by one of my fellow panelists before the Science Committee last week, Scott Charney of Microsoft – argued strenuously for cybersecurity regulation.

But that begs the question of what regulation would say. Regulation is poorly suited to the process of discovering how to solve new problems amid changing technology and business practices.

There is some market failure in the cybersecurity area. Insecure technology can harm networks and users of networks, and these costs don’t accrue to the people selling or buying technology products. To get them to internalize these costs, I suggested tort liability rather than regulation. While courts discover the legal doctrines that unpack the myriad complex problems with litigating about technology products and services, they will force technology sellers and buyers to figure out how to prevent cyber-harms.

Government has a role in preventing people from harming each other, of course, and the common law could develop to meet “cyber” harms if it is left to its own devices. Tort litigation has been abused, and the established corporate sector prefers regulation because it is a stable environment for them, it helps them exclude competition, and they can use it to avoid liability for causing harm, making it easier to lag on security. Litigation isn’t preferable, and we don’t want lots of it – we just want the incentive structure tort liability creates.

As the distended policy issue it is, “cybersecurity” is ripe for shenanigans. Aggressive government agencies are looking to get regulatory authority over the Internet, computers, and software. Some of them wouldn’t mind getting to watch our Internet traffic, of course. Meanwhile, the corporate sector would like to use government to avoid the hot press of market competition, while shielding itself from liability for harms it may cause.

The government must secure its own assets and resources – that’s a given. Beyond that, not much good can come from government cybersecurity policy, except the occassional good, long blog post.

Morozov vs. Cyber-Alarmism

I’m no information security expert, but you don’t have to be to realize that an outbreak of cyber-alarmism afflicts American pundits and reporters.

As Jim Harper and Tim Lee have repeatedly argued (with a little help from me), while the internet created new opportunities for crime, spying, vandalism and military attack, the evidence that the web opens a huge American national security vulnerability comes not from events but from improbable what-ifs. That idea is, in other words, still a theory. Few pundits bother to point out that hackers don’t kill, that cyberspies don’t seem to have stolen many (or any?) important American secrets, and that our most critical infrastructure is not run on the public internet and thus is relatively invulnerable to cyberwhatever. They never note that to the extent that future wars have an online component, this redounds to the U.S. advantage, given our technological prowess.  Even the Wall Street Journal and New York Times recently published breathless stories exaggerating our vulnerability to online attacks and espionage.

So it’s good to see that the July/ August Boston Review has a terrific article by Evgeny Morozov taking on the alarmists. He provides not only a sober net assessment of the various worries categorized by the vague modifier “cyber” but even offers a theory about why hype wins.

Why is there so much concern about “cyber-terrorism”? Answering a question with a question: who frames the debate? Much of the data are gathered by ultra-secretive government agencies—which need to justify their own existence—and cyber-security companies—which derive commercial benefits from popular anxiety. Journalists do not help. Gloomy scenarios and speculations about cyber-Armaggedon draw attention, even if they are relatively short on facts.

I agree.

New Technology Charts Old Repression

The fact that North Korea is a monstrous tyranny is well-known.  Google Earth is helping map that tyranny in extraordinary detail, from the opulent palaces of the elite to the horrid labor camps for the victims. 

Reports The Independent:

US researchers are using the internet to reveal what life is really like behind the closed borders of the world’s last Stalinist dictatorship

The most comprehensive picture of what goes on inside the secret state of North Korea has emerged from an innovative US project. The location of extraordinary palaces, labour camps and the mass graves of famine victims have all been identified. The online operation that has penetrated the world’s last remaining iron curtain is called North Korea Uncovered. Founded by Curtis Melvin, a postgraduate student at George Mason University, Virginia, it uses Google Earth, photographs, academic and specialist reports and a global network of contributors who have visited or studied the country. Mr Melvin says the collaborative project is an example of “democratised intelligence”. He is the first to emphasise that the picture is far from complete, but it is, until the country opens up, the best we have.

Palaces

The palatial residences of the political elite are easy to identify as they are in sharp contrast to the majority of housing in the deeply impoverished state. Though details about many palaces’ names, occupants and uses are hard to verify, it is known that such buildings are the exclusive domain of Kim Jong-Il, his family and his top political aides. Kim Jong-Il is believed to have between 10 and 17 palaces, many of which have been spotted on Google Earth:

1) Mansion complex near Pyongyang

This may be Kim Jong-Il’s main residence. His father lived here surrounded by the huge, ornate gardens and carefully designed network of lakes. Tree-lined paths lead to a swimming pool with a huge water slide, and next to the complex there is a full-size racetrack with a viewing stand and arena. There is a cluster of other large houses around the mansion, forming an enclosed, elite community. It appears to be reached via an underground station on a private railway which branches off from the main line.

The new technology is creating a new variant to the old saying:  you can run, but you can’t hide.  Tyrants can run their countries but they can’t hide their abuses.

We still have yet to figure out how to toss thugs like Kim Jong-il into history’s trashcan.  But better understanding their crimes is an important part of the process.

… But What Is “Cyber”?

Cyberwar. Cyberdefense. Cyberattack. Cybercommand.

You run across these four words before you finish the first paragraph of this New York Times story (as reposted on msnbc.com). It’s about government plans to secure our technical infrastructure.

When you reach the end of the story, though, you still don’t know what it’s about. But you do get a sense of coming inroads against Americans’ online privacy.

The problem, which the federal government has assumed to tackle, is the nominal insecurity of networks, computers, and data. And the approach the federal government has assumed is the most self-gratifying: “Cyber” is a “strategic national asset.” It’s up to the defense, intelligence, and homeland security bureaucracies to protect it.

But what is “cyber”?

With the Internet and other technologies, we are creating a new communications and commerce “space.” And just like the real spaces we are so accustomed to, there are security issues. Some of the houses have flimsy locks on the front doors. Some of the stores leave merchandise on the loading docks unattended. Some office managers don’t lock the desk drawers that hold personnel files. Some of the streets can be too easily flooded with water. Some of the power lines can be too easily snapped.

These are problems that should be corrected, but we don’t call on the federal government to lock up our homes, merchandise, and personnel files. We don’t call on the federal government to fix roads and power lines (deficit “stimulus” spending aside). The federal government secures its own assets, but that doesn’t make all assets a federal responsibility or a military problem.

As yet, I haven’t seen an explanation of how an opponent of U.S. power would use “cyberattack” to advance any of its aims. If it’s even possible, which I doubt, taking down our banking system for a few days would not “soften up” the country for a military attack. Knocking out the electrical system in one region of the country for a day wouldn’t let Russia take control of the Bering Strait. Shutting down Americans’ access to Google Calendar wouldn’t advance Islamists’ plans for a worldwide Muslim caliphate.

This is why President Obama’s speech on cybersecurity retreated to a contrived threat he called “weapons of mass disruption.” Fearsome inconvenience!

The story quotes one government official as follows:

“How do you understand sovereignty in the cyberdomain?” General Cartwright asked. “It doesn’t tend to pay a lot of attention to geographic boundaries.”

That’s correct. “Cyber” is not a problem that affects our sovereignty or the integrity of our national boundaries. Thus, it’s not a problem for the defense or intelligence establishments to handle.

The benefits of the online world vastly outstrip the risks - sorry Senator Rockefeller. With those benefits come a variety of problems akin to graffiti, house fires, street closures, petit theft, and organized crime. Those are not best handled by centralized bureaucracies, but by the decentralized systems we use to secure the real world: property rights, contract and tort liability, private enterprise, and innovation.

America Threatened as Never Before

The Justice Department is on the job.  Perceiving a dire threat against the American republic, they have acted to keep America safe.  As my colleague Sallie James noted yesterday, they are stealing confiscating the money of Internet gamblers.

Reports Richard Morrison of our friends at the Competitive Enterprise Institute:

Just when it seemed that those in power had begun to think about Internet poker in a positive light, the Department of Justice throws us back into the digital dark ages by seizing $34 million in funds rightfully owned by around 27,000 online poker players. The government is alleging that the funds are associated with illegal online gambling and money laundering.

In a letter sent to Alliance Bank, the prosecutor said accounts held by payment processor Allied Systems Inc. are subject to seizure and forfeiture “because they constitute property involved in money laundering transactions and illegal gambling offenses.” The letter was signed by Arlo Devlin-Brown, assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.

Knowing that the federal government is busy violating our privacy and grabbing our money to save us from ourselves just makes one feel great to be an American

Cyber Security “Facts”

National Journal’s “Expert Blog” on National Security asked me late last week to comment on the question, “How Can Cyberspace Be Defended?” My comment and others went up yesterday.

My response was a fun jaunt through issues on which there are no experts. But the highlight is the response I drew out of Michael Jackson, the former #2 man at the Department of Homeland Security.

It does little to promote serious discourse about the truly grave topic of cyber security threats to begin by ridiculing DHS and DOD as “grasping for power” or to suggest that President Obama has somehow been duped into basing his sensible cyber strategy on “a lame and corny threat model called ‘weapons of mass disruption.’” It shows ignorance of the facts to deny that cyber vulnerabilities do indeed present the possibility of “paralyzing results.”

Jackson neglects to link to a source proving the factual existence of “paralyzing” threats to the Internet – he’d have to defeat the Internet’s basic resilient design to do it. (Or he has collapsed the Internet, the specific way of networking I was talking about, with “cyber” – a meaningless referent to everything.) But the need for tight argument or proof is almost always forgiven in homeland security and cyber security, where the Washington, D.C. echo-chamber relentlessly conjures problems that only an elite bureaucracy can solve.

In another comment – not taking umbrage at mine, but culturally similar to Jackson’s – Ron Marks, Senior Vice President for Government Relations at Oxford-Analytica, says, “Cyberterrorism is here to stay and will grow bigger.” The same can be said of the bogeyman, but the bogeyman isn’t real either.

(To all interlocutors: Claiming secrecy will be taken as confessing you have no evidence.)

Jackson’s close is the tour de force though: “Good people are working hard on these matters, and they deserve our unwavering financial and personal support. For now and for the long-term.”

A permanent tap on America’s wallets, and respect on command? Sounds like “grasping for power” to me.