Repeal the Internet

Robert Samuelson wrote in the Washington Post “If I could, I would repeal the Internet

He’s kidding, right? This is some kind of funny snarky sarcastic opinion piece meant to ridicule FUDslingers, right? It is supposed to make us conscious of the dangers of isolationists, right? Doesn’t seem like it.

He mentions several past threats that were “hyped” and it even seems like he believes Mandiant’s marketing engine. Uh-oh.

…the Internet creates new avenues for conflict and mayhem. Until now, the motives for hacking — aside from political activists determined to make some point — have mostly involved larceny and business espionage. Among criminals, “the Internet is seen as the easiest, fastest way to make money,” says Richard Bejtlich, chief security officer for Mandiant, a cybersecurity firm. Recently, federal prosecutors alleged that a gang of cyberthieves had stolen $45 million by hacking into databases of prepaid debit cards and then draining cash from ATMs.

Anyone who has been reading this blog (hi mom!) knows I can be somewhat opposed to the messaging of Mandiant and Bejtlich. I believe they relentlessly magnify threats into bogeymen of unbelievable proportions while at the same time oversimplifying them. Even worse, they peddle secrecy and fight against transparency in our industry.

Samuelson’s theory is possibly the fruit of their labor; an economist is scared of the Internet and banging a drum about risk in a major newspaper; a frightened result of Mandiant marketing. He doesn’t explain trends in financial theft online; just repeats the old line that attackers get progressively more dangerous and so right now, this very instant, they are more dangerous than ever.

Look at what he says about “‘infrastructure’ systems (electricity grids and the like)”, for example.

In the mid-1980s, most of these systems were self-contained. They relied on dedicated phone lines and private communications networks. They were hard to infiltrate.

That’s quite an exaggeration and misrepresents the industry. Dedicated lines and private networks in many cases made containment a nightmare — easy to infiltrate. Do you have any idea how difficult it was to search for analog lines to ensure no back-doors existed? By the 1990s countless nights were spent wandering halls and fiddling with toneloc scripts because we were in a race with attackers to hit a dial tone that *shouldn’t* be there. Containment failures wasn’t a new concept in the 1990s; phreaking for access was at least 20 years old by then and certainly a problem in the mid 1980s.

Remember the 414 Gang in 1983?

Pranksters disrupt a hospital, and nobody is laughing

Here’s a clue from 1983 that should really illustrate how “self-contained” systems were:

The flurry of recent, highly publicized incidents involving young systems hackers accessing government and commercial data bases has refocused attention on a variety of proposed and recently enacted computer crime laws, both state and federal.

Testimony of both victim and attacker in front of US Congress emphasized just how easy it was to infiltrate.

[Jimmy McClary, from the Los Alamos lab’s operational security and safeguards division] and Mr. Patrick [one of the Milwaukee teen-agers who broke into dozens of large computer systems] said that because someone using a home computer could enter another computer just by dialing the wrong number, the law should differentiate between those who enter computer systems without malicious intent and those who deliberately attempt to alter or damage a system.

The fact is businesses are always clamoring to share information and they often install all kinds of rogue technology. Containment is violated as soon as the ability exists, which predates the 1980s. If anyone thinks executives are neatly standing in rows and following orders of their computer managers then they haven’t done an assessment of containment in their life.

In other words take a quick look at real news from the mid-1980s. A similar situation of scaremongering and fear was bubbling up in America. It is dangerous to forget that we’ve seen these political machinations before. The movie Wargames released in 1983. The intel/mil community (e.g. 1980s equivalent of Bejtlich) was warning back then that they should be allowed to take control of the Internet away from civilians to protect us from harm.

As I presented to Bejtlich and others in 2011, electricity grids and the like have been proven easy to infiltrate for many, many years and this is not any reason to freak out. Bejtlich’s response, a tweet during my presentation, was that I don’t understand “sophistication” of attackers, and that I haven’t seen what he has seen.

My problem with this logic is that Einstein told us “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”. So if Bejtlich wants to argue that he isn’t able to explain it simply and he doesn’t want to share the data…well, that’s good entertainment material for security horror films but it doesn’t actually make it real. Does it?

During the mid 1990s it was obvious to auditors that infrastructure could be infiltrated. A big difference back then was that the energy industry thought they could dissuade anyone from trying. On one engagement alone for a multi-state bulk energy distribution company I looked at thousands and thousands of routers on the Internet all managed with clear-text authentication and no integrity monitoring. This seemed like the logical progression from the analog/modem risks earlier and, as usual, our ability to fix it was hampered by economics. To make a finer point the network admin running systems was begging for help from external assessors. He couldn’t convince management to budget for better security controls.

We did our best to raise infiltration issues. Upper management reminded us we were just a portion of a larger “financial” risk model and strict laws for prosecution were sufficient disincentive. In other words we were working under a US gov position that since financial backers ran the energy business, if financiers were willing to accept risk then the gov would too. As I remember it, the financiers (e.g. banks) responded they were confident that systems were not connected to the Internet…. Yet there we were looking at evidence to the contrary. We ran into a dead-end because of politics and economics, not any real failure of technology.

This is a frequent issue in defense. You find gaps and then have to set about convincing people to make change in terms that are mired in human decision. I easily could end up on the same side as Mandiant in many ways. Of course I want fewer holes, tighter controls, etc. to improve the state of technical defense capabilities. However, I pull away from them when I see how they want to change opinions with a “sky fall” marketing push, especially when coupled with secrecy and lack of accountability. Crying wolf can have dire consequences for our industry.

Information technology isn’t the only place this happens. Let me try to put things in terms of another historic event. President Eisenhower, born in Kansas, had an ambitious plan in the mid 1950s to connect the US with a system of high-speed roads called the Interstate. You might think his home state of Kansas would be his biggest supporter. It wasn’t.

I grew up not far from a town in Kansas that was a few hills from where Eisenhower grew up. This town objected to the Interstate coming near. They had fears very similar to what I see in Robert Samuelson’s post about the Internet infrastructure. Highways were not thought of as a breakthrough but rather a means for unwanted outsiders to reach them, to reduce their happy containment.

Avoiding access to the Interstate sounds insane today, right? The Interstate has become the economic engine of towns in rural and urban America. It is the link to the world that helps economies thrive by delivering people and supplies. An economist surely can see how this flow is critical to success. Dismissing information on the Internet, access to knowledge, as “shallow”…is hard to believe is a serious argument.

Of course we couldn’t be as successful without access to knowledge. Innovation is a function of exposure. There are risks to exposure. Yet good can easily outweigh bad exposure when cost-effective controls are applied. Sometimes those controls are economic as well. This race we’re in is not just between offense and defense, it is between health and disease, education and ignorance….

About 50 years after the Interstate was built (30 miles south of that little town) residents had to admit their mistake. They widened the artery and increased speeds; they knew the value of outsiders coming faster and more frequently was worth the risks. Don’t forget, attackers are always evolving. The threats today are worse than ever.

Every business knows there is friction in supply-chains. Should we treat everything as threatening when one bad guy drives into town and robs a bank? Obviously not. Is there “shallow” value to Interstate traffic? Yes, mixed in with the high value. Can we handle threats? Yes, if we approach them rationally. Compare this with how isolationists fare.

I firmly believe connectivity is the future. We need more, not less, access to data to be successful in emerging markets such as clean energy and bioscience. Where we see risk we need more sophisticated solutions than just isolation or militarization.

The Internet’s virtues are far, far from being overstated. We only are beginning to achieve potential benefits of better information exchanges. To shut off our connections now or put in the hands of the intelligence or military (or their advocates) would be a huge setback for America. We need to keep our networks open and under civilian control to focus on growth, unless under extreme danger (e.g. war); and if we ever must give up control we must have a clear and quick deadline for return.

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