Defending Cyberspace

or: No, I thought you were doing it.

Tagged: Hacks Security Policy

Yesterday I attended the Balancing Act symposium on big data, cybersecurity, and privacy. During the panel discussion, an excerpt from Clarke’s oft-quoted and debatably hyperbolic book on cyber war was invoked:

At the beginning of the era of strategic nuclear war capability, the U.S. deployed thousands of air defense fighter aircraft and ground-based missiles to defend the population and the industrial base, not just to protect military facilities. Every major city was ringed with Nike missile bases to shoot down Soviet bombers. At the beginning of the age of cyber war, the U.S. government is telling the population and industry to defend themselves. As one friend of mine asked, “Can you imagine if in 1958 the Pentagon told U.S. Steel and General Motors to go buy their own Nike missiles to protect themselves? That’s in effect what the Obama Administration is saying to industry today.”

That passage has always struck me as proffering a false equivalence. The US Government has near absolute control over the country’s airspace, and is thereby responsible to defend against any foreign aggression therein. Cyber attacks, on the other hand, are much less overt—with the possible exception of relatively unsophisticated and ephemeral denial of service (DOS) attacks. A typical attacker targeting a private company is most likely interested stealing intellectual property. That’s certainly the trend we’ve seen since the publication of Clarke’s book back in 2012, vi&., Sony, Target, Home Depot, &c. The way those types of attacks are perpetrated is more similar to a single, covert operative sabotaging or exfiltrating data from the companies rather than an overt aerial bombardment.

The actual crime happens within the private company’s infrastructure, not on the “public” Internet. The Internet is just used as a means of communication between the endpoints. More often than not the intermediate communication is encrypted, so even if a third party snooping on the “conversation” were somehow able to detect that a crime were being committed, the conversation would only be intelligible if the eavesdropper were “listening” at the endpoints.

A man has a completely clean criminal record. He drives a legally registered vehicle, obeying all traffic regulations, on a federal interstate highway. A police officer observing the vehicle would have no probable cause to stop him. The man drives to a bank which he robs using an illegal, unregistered gun. Had a police officer stopped the bank robber while in the car, the gun would have been found and the bank robber arrested. Does that give the police the right to stop cars without probable cause? Should the bank have expected the government to protect it from this bank robber?

The only way I can see for the government to provide such protections to the bank, without eroding civil liberties (i.e., the fourth amendment), would be to provide additional security within the bank. Now, that may be well and good in the bank analogy, but jumping back to the case of cyber warfare, would a huge, multi-national company like Sony be willing to allow the US Government to install security hardware/software/analysts into its private network? I think not.

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