Monday, July 01, 2013

Washington Post hosts debate on "repealing the Internet" (on Wonkblog)

There was a whimsical exchange in the Washington Post “Wonkblog” area today about “repealing the Internet” to make the nation’s essential old-fashioned infrastructure (like during the Reagan years) more secure. 
Robert Samuelson started it, and then Timothy B. Lee responded with his own analysis of the purported study by the Defense Science Board (basic link, has earlier reports on cybersecurity).  Lee writes “Let’s not shut down the Internet to ward off cyberattacks”, link here,  and subsequent links to Samuelson. 

Samuelson argues that the connection of everything in Cyberspace (the Zuckerberg Effect) makes the entire infrastructure unusually vulnerable to determined attack.  In the past, various industries had separate systems, and these could be linked only manually (for example, by paperwork procedures like Medallion signatures in banks). 
A real attack that could cripple the US infrastructure completely would normally require a huge effort, including Hollwyood-style sabotage of physical assets by foreign agents or by disloyal internal people, going way beyond the issues of cybersecurity as we usually see it.
That’s true generally, but there are some serious asymmetric dangers and even natural ones we need to bear in mind.
I’ve covered on my blogs recently the dangers to the power grid (and Internet infrastructure, of course) that could be posed by an electromagnetic pulse attack (EMP).  The worst case scenario for such an attack could be a nuclear explosion at high altitude from a Scud-type missile launched off shore from a supposed cargo ship commandeered by terrorists (possibly set up by Iran or North Korea).  In some cases, not only would the power grid transformers be fried and take months or years to replace, but many consumer electronics would be destroyed.  Possibly more likely would be the discharge of non-nuclear radio frequency weapons that have local effects (over city blocks); these weapons are in possession and overseas use by the US Army now and could fall into the wrong hands or possibly be improvised (although the latter is not as easy as some on the right wing claim). Indeed, the Washington Times covered this idea a few years ago 
 (See also Books blog, April 1,  “A Nation Forsaken”, by Michael Maloof).  Related is the threat of a Carrington-sized solar storm with coronal mass ejections.  Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee has published papers on these possibilities. ORNL also takes seriously the idea of a physical attack by terrorists on a nuclear or conventional power plant.
The idea that an asymmetric interest could create such disruption as to make success in today’s civilization irrelevant (as measured by the usual money system) certainly fits in with ideological discussions of “class warfare” and “revolution” and religious parables like “The Rich Young Ruler”.  Revolution, though, could come from within the establishment itself, too, as in J. J. Abrams NBC series about a 15-blackout this past season (although the scientific premise of that series turned out to be baloney).
What may be more a  cyber threat, than what Samuelson describes, could be wholesale corruption of financial information by hackers, although on a scale we have never seen.  Or possibly large scale attempts to frame people for computer crimes.  

While physical attacks on infrastructure are a grave danger (look at the recent explosion in Texas), it would sound easier to secure power grids and fuel delivery systems against attacks by properly isolating them from the public Internet.  This has been written about since at least 2002.  The security reverts back to more the usual concerns well known from the world of Tom Clancy, even a few decades ago.  Maybe Clive Cussler, with his Dirk Pitt novels, has some ideas worth looking at, too. 

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