Features

net.wars: Payback

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 10 December 2010


A new word came my way while I was reviewing the many complaints about the Transportation Security Administration and its new scanner toys and pat-down procedures: "Chertoffed". It's how "security theater" (Bruce Schneier's term) has transformed the US since 2001.

Wendy M Grossman

The description isn't entirely fair to Chertoff, who was only the *second* head of the Bush II-created Department of Homeland Security and has now been replaced: he served from 2005-2009. But since he's the guy who began the scanner push and also numbers scanner manufacturers among the clients of his consultancy company, The Chertoff Group - it's not really unfair either.

What do you do after defining the travel experience of a generation? A little over a month ago, Chertoff showed up at London's RSA Data Security conference to talk about what he thought needed to happen in order to secure cyberspace. We need, he said, a doctrine to lay out the rules of the road for dealing with cyber attacks and espionage – the sort of thing that only governments can negotiate. The analogy he chose was to the doctrine that governed nuclear armament, which he said (at the press Q&A) "gave us a very stable, secure environment over the next several decades."

In cyberspace, he argued, such a thing would be valuable because it makes clear to a prospective attacker what the consequences will be. "The greatest stress on security is when you have uncertainty – the attacker doesn't know what the consequences will be and misjudges the risk." The kinds of things he wants a doctrine to include are therefore things like defining what is a proportionate response: if your country is on the receiving end of an attack from another country that's taking out the electrical power to hospitals and air traffic control systems with lives at risk, do you have the right to launch a response to take out the platform they're operating from? Is there a right of self-defence of networks?

"I generally take the view that there ought to be a strong obligation on countries, subject to limitations of practicality and legal restrictions, to police the platforms in their own domains," he said.

Now, there are all sorts of reasons many techies are against government involvement – or interference – in the Internet. First and foremost is time: the World Summit on the Information Society and its successor, the Internet Governance Forum, have taken years to do…no one's quite sure what, while the Internet's technology has gone on racing ahead creating new challenges. But second is a general distrust, especially among activists and civil libertarians. Chertoff even admitted that.

"There's a capability issue," he said, "and a question about whether governments put in that position will move from protecting us from worms and viruses to protecting us from dangerous ideas."

This was, of course, somewhat before everyone suddenly had an opinion about Wikileaks. But what has occurred since makes that distrust entirely reasonable: give powerful people a way to control the Net and they will attempt to use it. And the Net, as in John Gilmore's famous aphorism, "perceives censorship as damage and routes around it". Or, more correctly, the people do.

What is incredibly depressing about all this is watching the situation escalate into the kind of behavior that governments have quite reasonably wanted to outlaw and that will give ammunition to those who oppose allowing the Net to remain an open medium in which anyone can publish. The more Wikileaks defenders organize efforts like this week's distributed denial-of-service attacks, the more Wikileaks and its aftermath will become the justification for passing all kinds of restrictive laws that groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Open Rights Group have been fighting against all along.

Wikileaks itself is staying neutral on the subject, according to the statement on its (Swiss) Web site: Wikileaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson said: “We neither condemn nor applaud these attacks. We believe they are a reflection of public opinion on the actions of the targets.”

Well, that's true up to a point. It would be more correct to say that public opinion is highly polarized, and that the attacks are a reflection of the opinion of a relatively small section of the public: people who are at the angriest end of the spectrum and have enough technical expertise to download and install software to make their machines part of a botnet – and not enough sense to realize that this is a risky, even dangerous, thing to do. Boycotting Amazon.com during its busiest time of year to express your disapproval of its having booted Wikileaks off its servers would be an entirely reasonable protest. Vandalism is not. (In fact the announced attack on Amazon's servers seems not to have succeeded, though others have.

I have written about the Net and what I like to call the border wars between cyberspace and real life for nearly 20 years. Partly because it's fascinating, partly because when something is new you have a real chance to influence its development, and partly because I love the Net and want it to fulfill its promise as a democratic medium. I do not want to have to look back in another 20 years and say it's been "Chertoffed". Governments are already mad about the utterly defensible publication of the cables; do we have to give them the bullets to shoot us with, too?


Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).