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The Cybersecurity Act of 2009 Could Shut Down Your Internet

The Cybersecurity Act of 2009 is currently under consideration by the US Senate. It was introduced by Senator John Rockefeller and co-sponsors on April 1st of this year.

Take a look at this abstract describing the Cybersecurity Act of 2009:

A bill to ensure the continued free flow of commerce within the United States and with its global trading partners through secure cyber communications, to provide for the continued development and exploitation of the Internet and intranet communications for such purposes, to provide for the development of a cadre of information technology specialists to improve and maintain effective cybersecurity defenses against disruption, and for other purposes.

The Act should be seen as an interesting first attempt at a very real problem. The "Internet" is the name for a bewildering array of public and private networks that provide a vast array of services. Besides web surfing, it also serves as the means for implementing a number of essential services: traffic control, emergency response, public utility monitoring and upkeep, and of course all of the US telecom providers - and that hardly scratches the surface.

Recent efforts that have succeeded in bringing down parts of the Internet or disrupting service bring the problem into focus. We're dependent on the 'net for a lot of important services, and threats to these services should be taken seriously.

As written, the Act would provide the President or his designees with a lot of authority, particularly in terms of shutting down all or parts of the Internet. Take a look at these key provisions:

The President--

...may declare a cybersecurity emergency and order the limitation or shutdown of Internet traffic to and from any compromised Federal Government or United States critical infrastructure information system or network;

...shall designate an agency to be responsible for coordinating the response and restoration of any Federal Government or United States critical infrastructure information system or network affected by a cybersecurity emergency declaration...

...shall direct the periodic mapping of Federal Government and United States critical infrastructure information systems or networks, and shall develop metrics to measure the effectiveness of the mapping process;

may order the disconnection of any Federal Government or United States critical infrastructure information systems or networks in the interest of national security;

Note that this gives the federal government the authority to shut down privately owned Internet networks; for example, any portion of the networks or cable systems owned by large corporations like Comcast or ATT.

As far as I'm concerned, this discussion started in the mid-1970's. The first time I heard about the idea of having a way to shut down all or part of the public data netword was in an sf novel. In his 1976 classic The Shockwave Rider, John Brunner writes about a special tapeworm developed to bring down the 'net under defined circumstances:

Not for nothing is a tapeworm called a tapeworm. It can be made to breed. Most can only do so if they are fertilized; that's to say, if they're interfered with from outside. For example, the worm that prevents the Fedcomps from monitoring calls to Hearing Aid, and the similar but larger one that was released at Weychopee—Electric Skillet—to shut down the net in the event of enemy occupation: those are designed to lay dormant until tampered with. That's true of all phage-type worms.

As far as I can tell, nobody has made an effort to see how the President - or anyone - could shut down all or part of the Internet. Would it be implemented in hardware or software? Can it be done with current infrastructure?

In the novel, Brunner introduces the idea of computer tapeworms, a special kind of self-sustaining, self-directed software program that could be set loose to run through the 'net, accomplishing the purpose of its author. Private individuals could use them for any number of (even nefarious) purposes. As Brunner puts it:

According to recent report, there were so many worms and counterworms loose in the data-net now, the machines had been instructed to give them low priority unless they related to a medical emergency.

The novel's main character, Sandy, even writes a tapeworm that cannot be deleted even by entirely shutting down the 'net. The purpose of this "mother and father of all tapeworms" was to ferret out every last bit of information squirreled away or hidden by the federal government or by private corporations - and make it public for anyone to look at.

Do we want the President (or anyone) to have the authority to control the public Internet? Should anyone be able to cut off the part of the Internet that you sit on, thereby restricting your ability to find out information on the Internet?

I try not to editorialize, but I'd be curious to know what you think.

Read the full text of the Cybersecurity Act of 2009.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 4/17/2009)

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