Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Could our foreign enemies tempt the government to pull the "Internet Kill Switch"? The security concerns with "audience leveraging"

The rhetoric about the misuse of the Internet by foreign elements (ISIS) in the media has been scary in recent days.  The NSA and FBI have made some alarming and probably speculative statements about the way the Internet is being used to recruit lone wolves.  There is more vague talk of cyberwar.  CNN, ABCNews and Fox have been particularly aggressive with this matter;  other outlets, including Vox and NBC, seem more restrained. Particularly disturbing is the notion of the Internet as a weapon of war.  

As I’ve written here before, enemies can be real, and coercion has a big impact on how we engineer our own lives.  Actual war can change a lot of things quickly.  

So one “obvious” idea comes back to mind.  What about the supposed “Internet kill switch”?  An article in Mother Jones by Dana Liebeson from November 2013 (pre-ISIS) seems to give about the best explanation of how it could work in practice. You would hope that there is considerable pressure from Wall Street never to do this. 
In fact, there is an independent film called “KillSwitch” from Akorn (director Ali Akbarzadeh).  I’ve contacted the production company to find out about DVD, streaming availability.
In fact, there is a great deal of entropy in our discussion of Internet safety, freedom, and privacy right now.  On the one hand, the courts come down on the NSA, but on the other hand we realize encryption products could very well prevent law enforcement from detecting a deadly plot.  
Advocacy groups debate these points from the narrow views of their own supporting constituencies.
And the nature of threat varies with the enemy. North Korea poses different problems from ISIS, which in turn is not quite the same as the 9/11-version of Al Qaeda.  For years after 9/11, a lot of discussion concerned nuclear terror and dirty bombs, and more recently, with EMP flux devices.  The lone wolf, however, is most easily recruited by misuse of social media.  
We’ve had a lot of non-Muslim lone wolf incidents already, ranging from our own extreme right to the “mentally ill”, prompting the debate on the Second Amendment and gun control.  So the nature of this kind of incident, while tragic, has plenty of precedent. 
The basic process seems to be that foreign adversaries tweet links to “Dark Web” (to be differentiated from “Deep Web”) accounts not readily indexed, and the government claims that there are tens of thousands of people following these Twitter accounts, which Twitter can’t monitor and close quickly enough.  Perhaps a miniscule percentage of these tens of thousands might act on the violent rhetoric, which has been produced to look like professional media.  The strategy is unprecedented, but “logical” given the topology of the Internet and the mindset of the adversary. The effect is to locate the “three psychopaths in Minnesota” or anywhere else, so to speak.  Inevitably, the government says, this can lead to more Boston-style incidents, which might be directed particularly at police and military.  It is not too much of a stretch to imagine a foreign adversary (and it could be secular communism as well as radical Islam) trying to connect to public discontent over domestic police incidents in recent months, or other varied social issues and perceived victims. 
One could call this process “audience leveraging”, and that is something similar to what I have done, with a totally different (and I hope benign) purpose and result.  That is, in a world without gatekeepers (remember, Section 230 and DMCA Safe Harbor) it takes very little capital to post content and, with the help of both conventional “Web 1.0” search engines and now newer social media sites, develop an audience which magnifies your message.  You may not even need impressive numbers by the usual analytic measures, and you may not need to make any money, to be effective politically with this kind of asymmetry. In my case, the idea is that advocacy groups (like lobbying orgs) would know there is always someone like me around to keep them “intellectually honest”, and to encourage people to learn to think beyond their own immediate needs in the way they act politically.  I was somewhat the “enemy” of old-fashioned “solidarity”.  But here, what the “enemy” is doing is use leveraging to find the very few people who really will carry out their wishes. 

The government does have a program to counter propaganda, as reported in the Washington Post Monday by Scott Higham and Greg Miller, specifically focusing on Twitter, detailed story link here. More effective counters would have to come from (largely Muslim) religious leaders in western mosques working with youth. 
It’s natural to wonder if “amateur” content may be more regulated in the future than it has been.  Recently, a number of blogging gurus (like “Blogtyrant”) have been promoting the idea that you should be serious about getting a large audience and making money if you blog at all, by following many evolving professional techniques.  I think that is indeed true of “niche blogs”, or of blogs that support small businesses.  But it isn’t necessary to have big numbers to be effective “politically”.  But over time, the companies that host blogging platforms (at least the free services) could well decide that moving I this direction is in their best business interest, and international politics could be part of the picture.  Imagine, if you will, requirements of minimum distinct visitor counts, maximum bounce rates, and the like.  I do wonder now if that could happen. This question could come up in the context of encrypting the entire “public” web, which is now a double-edged idea.

Also -- check the Internet Safety blog Oct. 13, 2014 for article on Shodan.  

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