Understanding the Internet 'kill switch' - East Valley Tribune: Data Doctors

Understanding the Internet 'kill switch'

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Posted: Thursday, February 3, 2011 4:36 pm | Updated: 8:27 pm, Tue Feb 8, 2011.

Q: Is it true that our government is trying to create an Internet kill switch so they can do what the government in Egypt did? — Tyson

A: The Internet has been a thorn in the side of governments around the world and the U.S. is no exception.

Many elder legislators continue to harken for the good old days of authorized wiretaps and tremendous control over our communication systems, but an open and transparent Internet doesn’t lend itself to this type of control.

There has been proposed legislation to give the president and Homeland Security department the power to “turn off” certain portions of the Internet in the event of a cyber-attack against critical infrastructure that would threaten national security.

Opponents of this proposal quickly created the “kill switch” moniker to help fight what they believe is an attempt by the government at gaining overbearing power of the Internet.

To be fair, the proposed legislation is far from a kill switch and would not create the ability to do what we saw happen to Internet access in Egypt during the recent civil unrest.

Egypt essentially has four main Internet service providers and an autocratic government that rules with an iron fist, making it easy to shut down Internet access for most of their country quickly.

The U.S. has thousands of Internet service providers and the government has no quick way to control or shut them all down. 

This proposed legislation does not intend to create that type of mechanism; however, what they are proposing has many concerned because of the broad nature of the language (like what exactly constitutes a cyber-attack?) and the unintended consequences, especially to commerce that relies on the same infrastructure.

Everyone would agree that we need contingency plans for what might happen in the future, but the notion that the president would have unchecked power to declare an emergency and tell a commercial entity to shut down with no congressional oversight and no judicial recourse should be a concern to everyone, not just the tech community.

Our legislators haven’t shown that they really understand technology in the past and this bill continues to underscore this lack of fundamental understanding of what is already in place.

The companies that operate the infrastructure in question already place security of their networks as their highest priority, as it is essential to operating in a world full of hackers (attacks on infrastructure are happening every day already).

To think that the government could manage Internet-related threats better than the companies at the front lines is laughable to the Internet community, and giving anyone unprecedented control over technology they don’t understand is certainly disconcerting.

As a point of fact, the Communications Act of 1934 gives the government the ability to “take over or shut down wire and radio communications in a time of war,” so controlling critical infrastructure when national security is being threatened is already possible, according to opponents of this proposed legislation.

What should be done, in my opinion, is to get the government and the private companies that own the infrastructure in question to the table to discuss communication protocols ahead of any emergency. That way, informed decisions could be made in a structured way in the event of a cyber-attack and we would have a basis to consistently run fire drills that would test our preparedness.

Giving the president or Homeland Security (the same group that brought us the airport pat-down) unfettered control over large chunks of the Internet for up to 120 days with no other oversight sure seems like a step in a direction away from the principles that this country was founded on.

If you feel the same way, be sure to let your elected representatives know by dropping them a line at: http://writerep.house.gov or http://www.senate.gov.

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Ken Colburn
  • Ken Colburn
  • E-mail: evtrib@datadoctors.com
  • Ken Colburn is president of Data Doctors Computer Services and host of the Data Doctors Radio Program, noon Saturdays on KTAR 92.3 FM or at www.datadoctors.com/radio
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