3 Reasons to Kill the Internet Kill Switch Idea
By Bruce Schneier
July 9, 2010
Last month, Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., introduced a bill that might -- we're not really sure -- give the president the authority to shut down all or portions of the Internet in the event of an emergency. It's not a new idea. Sens. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, proposed the same thing last year, and some argue that the president can already do something like this. If this or a similar bill ever passes, the details will change considerably and repeatedly. So let's talk about the idea of an Internet kill switch in general.
It's a bad one.
Security is always a trade-off: costs versus benefits. So the first question to ask is: What are the benefits? There is only one possible use of this sort of capability, and that is in the face of a warfare-caliber enemy attack. It's the primary reason lawmakers are considering giving the president a kill switch. They know that shutting off the Internet, or even isolating the U.S. from the rest of the world, would cause damage, but they envision a scenario where not doing so would cause even more.
That reasoning is based on several flawed assumptions.
Internet Without Borders
The first flawed assumption is that cyberspace has traditional borders, and we could somehow isolate ourselves from the rest of the world using an electronic Maginot Line. We can't.
Yes, we can cut off almost all international connectivity, but there are lots of ways to get out onto the Internet: satellite phones, obscure ISPs in Canada and Mexico, long-distance phone calls to Asia.
The Internet is the largest communications system mankind has ever created, and it works because it is distributed. There is no central authority. No nation is in charge. Plugging all the holes isn't possible.
Even if the president ordered all U.S. Internet companies to block, say, all packets coming from China, or restrict non-military communications, or just shut down access in the greater New York area, it wouldn't work. You can't figure out what packets do just by looking at them; if you could, defending against worms and viruses would be much easier.
And packets that come with return addresses are easy to spoof. Remember the cyberattack July 4, 2009, that probably came from North Korea, but might have come from England, or maybe Florida? On the Internet, disguising traffic is easy. And foreign cyberattackers could always have dial-up accounts via U.S. phone numbers and make long-distance calls to do their misdeeds.
Unpredictable Side Effects
The second flawed assumption is that we can predict the effects of such a shutdown. The Internet is the most complex machine mankind has ever built, and shutting down portions of it would have all sorts of unforeseen ancillary effects.
Would ATMs work? What about the stock exchanges? Which emergency services would fail? Would trucks and trains be able to route their cargo? Would airlines be able to route their passengers? How much of the military's logistical system would fail?
That's to say nothing of the variety of corporations that rely on the Internet to function, let alone the millions of Americans who would need to use it to communicate with their loved ones in a time of crisis.
Even worse, these effects would spill over internationally. The Internet is international in complex and surprising ways, and it would be impossible to ensure that the effects of a shutdown stayed domestic and didn't cause similar disasters in countries we're friendly with.
The third flawed assumption is that we could build this capability securely. We can't.
Once we engineered a selective shutdown switch into the Internet, and implemented a way to do what Internet engineers have spent decades making sure never happens, we would have created an enormous security vulnerability. We would make the job of any would-be terrorist intent on bringing down the Internet much easier.
Computer and network security is hard, and every Internet system we've ever created has security vulnerabilities. It would be folly to think this one wouldn't as well. And given how unlikely the risk is, any actual shutdown would be far more likely to be a result of an unfortunate error or a malicious hacker than of a presidential order.
But the main problem with an Internet kill switch is that it's too coarse a hammer.
Yes, the bad guys use the Internet to communicate, and they can use it to attack us. But the good guys use it, too, and the good guys far outnumber the bad guys.
Shutting the Internet down, either the whole thing or just a part of it, even in the face of a foreign military attack would do far more damage than it could possibly prevent. And it would hurt others whom we don't want to hurt.
For years we've been bombarded with scare stories about terrorists wanting to shut the Internet down. They're mostly fairy tales, but they're scary precisely because the Internet is so critical to so many things.
Why would we want to terrorize our own population by doing exactly what we don't want anyone else to do? And a national emergency is precisely the worst time to do it.
Just implementing the capability would be very expensive; I would rather see that money going toward securing our nation's critical infrastructure from attack.
Defending his proposal, Sen. Lieberman pointed out that China has this capability. It's debatable whether or not it actually does, but it's actively pursuing the capability because the country cares less about its citizens.
Here in the U.S., it is both wrong and dangerous to give the president the power and ability to commit Internet suicide and terrorize Americans in this way.
Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.
Schneier on Security is a personal website. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Co3 Systems, Inc..