Obama Takes On SkyNet

We don't need a law letting the President take over the Internet.

The Internet is fulminating this week with reports of a new bill in the Senate that would give the President authority to, well, take over the Internet.  According to CNet, the bill

...would allow the president to "declare a cybersecurity emergency" relating to "non-governmental" computer networks and do what's necessary to respond to the threat. Other sections of the proposal include a federal certification program for "cybersecurity professionals," and a requirement that certain computer systems and networks in the private sector be managed by people who have been awarded that license.>

The far left views this as an assault of civil liberties.  The right views it as an assault on free speech.  They're both right - and yet, everyone is missing the point.

The Threat Is Real

As accustomed as Americans have become to using the Internet, it's still hard to truly comprehend just how essential it has become to running the country.  After all, you can see a highway and pick up a phone, and we've all had times when our own Internet connection went down and life didn't end.  If some enemy crashed our servers and "took out" the Internet for a while, it would be a real pain in the neck, but life would go on.  Wouldn't it?

For a while, yes.  But with each passing year, the old-style modes of communication become less familiar, and what remains is more thoroughly tied into the Internet itself.

In the early days of the Internet, it mostly rode on top of the existing phone system, but the system itself didn't use the Internet for its own operations.  Not so anymore; with modern fiber connections and computerized switching, the phone system is the Internet in many places.

Take down the Internet, and large chunks of the phone network go too - which includes faxes, cellphones, even text messaging.  It all ties together and increasingly depends on the same protocols.

Our military has their own parallel systems which wouldn't necessarily be affected in the same way by a cyber assault.  Do we really want to find ourselves in a situation where only soldiers can communicate beyond the sound of their voice?  As countless Americans have discovered at town-hall meetings this summer, our politicians ignore us at the best of times; imagine what they'd get up to if we literally couldn't complain to them or find out what they're doing.

That's not even mentioning the devastating economic consequences if businesses, employees, and customers suddenly found themselves able to communicate only via snail mail.

These are no idle worries.  In what some have called the first cyber-war, online attackers took down Estonia's government websites and banking system in response to a perceived slight against Russian soldiers.  Since Estonia has had a representative government and capitalist banking for less than two decades, the infrastructure and policies are much more modern than ours and thus more computer-reliant.  As a result, said the BBC:

Websites of the tiny Baltic state's government, political parties, media and business community have had to shut down temporarily after being hit by denial-of-service attacks, which swamp them with external requests... The attacks are taking a toll and have been likened by the defence ministry to "terrorist activities".  "Of course [sites] can be put up again, but they can be attacked also again," Mihkel Tammet, head of IT security at the Estonian defence ministry, told BBC World Service's Newshour programme.  Estonia, he said, depended largely on the internet because of the country's "paperless government" and web-based banking. "If these services are made slower, we of course lose economically," he added.

Not only wasn't Estonia able to stop the attacks even with top-flight assistance from the Pentagon and other world experts in computer security, they weren't even able to conclusively determine who was doing attacking their infrastructure.  Presumably it was Russians - but were they just individual computer geeks, or was the Russian state behind it?  Certainly the Russian government denied any involvement, but we'll never know.

We routinely read of computer incursions from China and other less-than-friendly nations.  It's not impossible to imagine an emergency where American lives depend on the President having the power to pull the plug.  What's worse: having the Internet down for a few days?  Or allowing our enemies to remotely fry our power plants, crash our trains, perhaps even launch our own missiles against us?

A False Choice

Before you answer that question, be warned: as Barack Obama himself might say, it's a false choice.  There are an awful lot of policies which could plausibly be argued as making us safer and yet which would cost far more in lost liberty than they are worth in security.

Consider the interstate highway system.  Technically, it is called the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.  Yes, that's right - they were built for a military purpose to make it easier to transport troops around the country in those days of Red Dawn fear.  We may never need them for that; but if we ever do, they're there.

Does the President have the power to "take over" the highway system in an emergency?  Yes and no.  Obviously, the Army will drive its tanks where it thinks they need to go and you're a fool if you get in the way.  Equally, we have provisions for martial law which restrict the movement of civilians in times of crisis.

On the other hand, we would never consider giving the President the power to, on his own say-so, simply shut down the American road system to ordinary citizens.  Use roads for national defense?  Of course - but as much as possible, our freedoms remain, particularly if we give tanks the right-of-way as common sense dictates.

The proposals currently in Congress go far beyond the simple logic of defense.  Yes, our enemies could attack our computerized systems at any point, just as in theory the Russian army could come parachuting down from the sky onto any Midwestern high-school football field.  Does that mean we should put land-mines on every open field and military policemen at every intersection?  No.

At least with roads and public-school athletic fields, the government owns them.  It doesn't even own most of the computers and data-links that make up the Internet; yet this proposal gives the President not only power to take over at a moment's notice, it allows day-to-day regulations - for instance, by requiring government approval and certification of computer engineers.

How is that going to help national defense?  DMV employees are all government-certified, and yet the 9-11 hijackers didn't have any problem finding corrupt bureaucrats willing to provide false licenses for a price - a pretty small price at that.

No, the only plausible purpose of bureaucratic intrusiveness is against Americans - whether it be American innovators that might disrupt large businesses who donate heavily to their political patrons, or individual Americans expressing opinions that the government does not care for.  Give an increasingly large and powerful government a blank check and it will clean you out.

That's the fear of the tech community at any rate.  Larry Clinton, president of the Internet Security Alliance, pointed out:

It is unclear what authority Sen. Rockefeller thinks is necessary over the private sector. Unless this is clarified, we cannot properly analyze, let alone support the bill.

When a bill is so vague that it can't be analyzed, yet grants unlimited powers to the President to take control of private property at any time, it's unconstitutional on its face and a hazard to our liberties. Just because the security threat is real does not mean that the government needs carte blanche against American private property rights.

Besides, what's the point of having a bill to grant these sorts of powers?  If we were ever really under attack, our Internet companies would shut things down the moment the President asked them to, just as we don't quibble about right-of-way and failure-to-yield when the Army comes roaring down the highway on its way to repel an invasion.

No, our liberal Democrats don't want to defend us against an evil and dangerous SkyNet co-opted by the Axis of Evil.  They want to create a SkyNet under their own total control.  Where is a co-opted Terminator when we need one?

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Petrarch or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
Reader Comments
DoS attacks are simple to carry out but are also pretty limited on the harm they can do. The real problem is people hacking into a system. The most common way that people hack into systems is by stealing someone's password (usually by monitoring a computer via a virus or if they really want to be fancy monitoring communications on wireless networks.) Government intervention in the system isn't going to be able to solve that problem.

The government okaying security systems will only serve as a way to standardize security measure leading to standardization of how to break those security measures. If you don't want your program to be hackable you certainly aren't going to use open source material. If the government has to okay the program you know that someone will be able to get access to the code, analyze it, and break it.
September 3, 2009 1:59 PM
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