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Government, business, military are internet security threats

Security guru tells industry to suit up for battle

RSA 2012 Usually the bête noire of the annual RSA conference is the criminal hacking community, but security guru Bruce Schneier asserts that government, business, and the military may well pose a bigger threat to security professionals.

"The current risks to internet freedom, openness, and innovation don't come from the bad guys – they are political and technical. I suppose I should call this talk 'Layer eight and nine threats'," he told his audience on Tuesday at RSA 2012.

Attempts at ill-conceived legislation are a major concern, he said. Outsiders trying to legislate something they have no understanding of (a "series of tubes", anyone?) has led to some very troubling moves on behalf of government on internet security. Sometimes these laws are brought forward for the best of intentions – however misguided – but all too often they are merely the result of lobbying.

The temporary suspension of SOPA/PIPA was a case in point, he said. The laws were not a good idea, but didn’t fail for that reason – and no politician wants to be seen as soft on crime he pointed out. The success of the campaign had nothing to do with Wikipedia going dark and everything to do with Google and others using their own lobbying bodies against it.

Law enforcement was another example of government interference that Schneier highlighted. The police are constantly working to get new laws passed to force technology providers to make their systems easier to monitor. This had happened with packet switching, and he used RIM's caving to governments over BlackBerry monitoring as an example.

He gave other examples, such as the increasing calls for anonymity to be banned online and for an internet "kill switch". Both were probably technologically impossible, and even if they were doable they'd still be bad ideas, he commented. People can build their anonymous networks that sit atop the internet, for example, and even if it were possible to take the US offline, one person with a satellite phone could render the whole exercise pointless.

On the business side of the equation, companies now harvest data willy nilly, and aggregate it to maximize advertising efficiency. The downside of this is that clumping all that lovely information also makes a very attractive target for hackers. Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon are the main culprits, Schneier said.

He also pointed out that there was an increasing movement towards "feudal security" by these companies, where people accept devices they have limited control over in exchange for their usefulness and the perceived security of the brand. As security professionals, this should make people very nervous, he said, and it was part of a wider attack by the big IT businesses against open computing.

"There's kind of a war against general-purpose computing," he said. "Companies realized they made a mistake and they're trying to get control back. Whether it's smartphones or tablets, you give much more control to the companies."

Finally, Schneier said that fears over online conflict have spawned a cyber–Cold War arms race. There have been convincing reports that both China and the US have scouted out each other's networks and are planting logic bombs in the event the current situation turns hot. If one of those bombs activates accidentally, then the situation would get very serious very quickly, he warned.

Schneier highlighted the email leaks from HGGary, which basically outed the company as a cyber arms manufacturer, and although he wasn't making any judgments, it was obvious that there is a lot of money to be made in this sector of the industry. But the military wasn't leaving it at that.

"I suspect in the next few years you're going to see very heavy military involvement in the national power grid and internet backbone," he warned. "While we're holding them back as long as we can, I think we're going to lose. The result is less security for all of us."

As a result, Schneier issued a call to arms for the security industry. People will have to get motivated to get the message about internet security out there and, hopefully, curb those threats to security and internet freedom.

"The security industry doesn't have a lobby, common sense doesn't have a lobby, technical excellence doesn't have a lobby," he said. "We need to get involved in layers eight and nine – the economic and political spheres. In the coming decade the future of the internet will be decided not by IETF, but by people outside it, and that worries me. I'm not sure they'll do a great job." ®

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