world war E
dispatches from the network society

Aug
11

The Kenyan government is compiling legislation to govern its burgeoning ICT sector. The legislation is motivated by a desire to stabilize e-commerce as an ‘economic growth engine’ – especially in new globalized sectors like electronic business services. The law will reportedly cover “e-signatures, privacy and security, econtracts, cyber crime, [and] offences and punishments” and could serve as a model for the region.

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Aug
11

A group of British parliamentarians invoked the metaphor of a ‘lawless Wild West’ to describe the digital world of the internet. The MPs recommend an alliance among government, software companies and internet users to combat flourishing cyber-outlaws and maintain public trust in the internet.

Aug
11

Concerned about the amount of processing power required to scan increasing DoD traffic for potential threats, DARPA is soliciting proposals for a project called Scalable Network Monitoring that uses trend analysis rather than brute force to idenfity threats.

[Via Wired]

Aug
10

Responding to an alleged ‘cyberwar’ sponsored by the U.S., President Mugabe’s government has blocked access to 41 websites, including CNN, which it accused of fomenting insurrection.

Aug
10

John Borland at Wired criticizes the widespread adoption of a cyberwar framework for describing the attack on Estonia in April. Rather than a cyberwar, he cites an Israeli network analysts view that the attack was a ‘cyber-riot’: “The whole idea of…online mob psychology, is taking psychological warfare and putting it on the offensive.”

However, the cyberwar frame derives from accusations of Russian state sponsorship, not the method by which the attack was launched, as Borland acknowledges. Guerrilla tactics – or what John Robb calls open-source insurgencies – may or may not have the political valence of a ‘war’.¬†(And ‘new war’ theorists like Kaldor, Keen, Kalyvas and others also argue the motivations for organized violence go – and have always gone – well beyond politics.)

This blog holds the cyberattack on Estonia as the spark of World War E because it represents a watershed moment of coordinated informational assault in response to concrete political decision-making. To be sure, riots usually have a certain logic below a veneer of chaos; but wars (or at least battles) have definitive targets and specific objectives, which in Estonia turned out to be government and media websites and punishing Estonia for a perceived slight.

Aug
10

The Economist reported a few weeks ago on Younis Tsouli aka Irhabi007, self-styled cyber-jihadi and apparent coordinator of al-Qaeda’s internet propaganda. Tsouli was arrested in London in 2005 along with two other cyber-jihadis and received a ten year sentence. The London Police counter-terrorism bureau delivered a textbook definition of the network society when describing the case as “networks within networks, connections within connections and links between individuals that cross local, national and international boundaries”.

The article claims that once al-Qaeda was defeated in physical Afghanistan, “Al-Qaeda (‘the base’) and its followers moved to cyberspace, the ultimate ungoverned territory, where jihadists have set up virtual schools for ideological and military training and active propaganda arms.”

It further argues that the internet is qualitatively different from previous communications revolutions (radio and telephone, for instance) because of its highly distributed nature, low barriers to entry, and multiple in/multiple out network structure that allow for aggregation and distribution of cyber-terrorism – from digital video to bomb-making instructions.

However, the most potent use of the internet is an age old one: propaganda and indoctrination. The Counter Terrorism Centre at West Point released in 2006 its Militant Ideology Atlas mapping the ideological influences of prominent jihadis from online sources. The report is worth a glance for its sophisticated network mapping techniques.

Aug
09

The Economist reports that in the wake of the cyberwar waged on Estonia, NATO is reconsidering its collective security arrangements. In a nutshell, because the network society transcends conventional political boundaries (excepting places bounded, like China, by great national firewalls), collective security arrangements based on territorial alliances like NATO are inadequate to prevent the contagion effects of a cyberwar. Paradoxically, the collective security of allies within NATO may depend on NATO ensuring the cybersecurity of non-allies – another way in which World War E is re-writing the rules of geopolitics.

Aug
09

The real world consequences of cyberwarfare were suggested by the cyberwar on Estonia, which took emergency response telephone services offline for about an hour. Similar concerns have been raised for years in the U.S., especially after the logistical problems of 9/11’s emergency response: What if a cyberterrorist coordinated with a ‘kinetic bomber’ to take down communications systems at the moment of detonation? The inability of emergency systems to respond would invariably constitute a ‘damage multiplier’ magnifying the impact of the real world attack.

Such concerns have remained largely within the realm of the hypothetical, with scenarios and warnings also issued for other critical infrastructure such as power stations and dams. Analysts in law enforcement agencies throughout the U.S., however, maintain that they are very real threats and that cyberterrorism is an inevitability – conclusions supported by evidence gleaned from seized al-Qaeda laptops in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The problem lies in system structure and the inintended consequences of integrating conventional systems into the network society:

Specialized digital devices are used by the millions as the brains of American “critical infrastructure” — a term defined by federal directive to mean industrial sectors that are “essential to the minimum operations of the economy and government.”

The devices are called distributed control systems, or DCS, and supervisory control and data acquisition, or SCADA, systems. The simplest ones collect measurements, throw railway switches, close circuit-breakers or adjust valves in the pipes that carry water, oil and gas. More complicated versions sift incoming data, govern multiple devices and cover a broader area.

What is new and dangerous is that most of these devices are now being connected to the Internet — some of them, according to classified “Red Team” intrusion exercises, in ways that their owners do not suspect.

Because the digital controls were not designed with public access in mind, they typically lack even rudimentary security, having fewer safeguards than the purchase of flowers online. Much of the technical information required to penetrate these systems is widely discussed in the public forums of the affected industries, and specialists said the security flaws are well known to potential attackers.

Now, at the recent DefCon conference in Las Vegas, hackers have provided a proof of concept cyberassault on oil refineries, power plants and factories, suggesting that cyberdefenses are in more urgent need of upgrading.

Aug
09

Sun Microsystems’s Susan Landau claims in the Washington Post that the NSA’s request for fiber optic intercept ability is an open invitation for global hackers, especially from geopolitical rivals China and Russia with professed cyberwarfare ambitions. Her argument is that once the capability for such intercepts is installed, the NSA will be unable to protect it from unauthorized use – and she illustrates with a string of recent cyberattacks on U.S. military information systems. Yet the implied solution – prevent such capability from being developed or deployed – seems unrealistic, even if it is the correct strategic path.

An apt comparison can be drawn with those who argued that the U.S. should not invent the atom bomb even if it could; once unleashed, the technology would be too dangerous. So far, it has not proven thus, although more and more countries are seeking to become nuclear powers. But Landau’s point – that the U.S. does not enjoy the kind of decades-long technological superiority in information networks as it did in nuclear physics – is valid; is not the network society, where knowledge is far more globally distributed, more dangerous with respect to the security implications of technological developments?

Aug
09

Senate hearings into whether or not U.S. Attorney General misled Congress on secret surveillance programs centered on the NSA’s secret datamining program, disclosed in 2004.

Specifically, the hearings focused on an incident in March 2004 when Gonzales – then White House counsel – attempted to pressure then-AG John Ashcroft (on his hospital bed recovering from pancreatitis) to reauthorize an undisclosed surveillance program. Gonzales (and White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card) was thwarted because Ashcroft had delegated authority to deputy AG Jim Comey.

If the undisclosed program Gonzales wanted to reauthorize was datamining, he technically may not have lied to Congress – but Senators involved in the hearings want his head to roll anyway, with Russ Feingold (D-WI) remarking, “It is time for a special counsel to investigate whether criminal charges should be brought.”

The datamining program (sometimes described as an extension of ECHELON) is controversial because unlike most signal intercept programs at the NSA, it sifts through large quantities of domestic communications traffic, and is consequently considered an assault on individual privacy.