Don’t waste time hiding NBN POI locations
‘Natsec’ too big for its boots?
Since it was only a Tweet, I don’t know whether it’s true that the ACCC’s consultation on relocating some NBN points of interconnect was, or was not, based on national security concerns expressed by the Attorney-General’s department.
If it was some kind of misguided national security notion, then Nicola Roxon needs someone to cross-check silly ideas with hard reality. It’s the kind of idea that looks good to someone whose knowledge is good in abstract, but ignorant of the outside world.
I have encountered the kind of people who think that all telecommunications infrastructure should be treated as a national secret. They’re fools: because obscuring the location of the infrastructure, if it were feasible, would cause more problems than it solves.
Let’s start with an easy example. You could cut Australia off from the Internet easily, by cutting a handful of cables owned by Telstra, Southern Cross Networks, the Australia-Japan Cable, and TPG’s PPC-1 cable. Just one cut would cause disruption in the form of increased latency to the US and onwards to the rest of the Internet.*
Shouldn’t their locations be a national secret? If they were, how would ships know not to drop anchors or fishing nets where the cables are most vulnerable – near the shore?
Hence maritime charts include the location of the cables and exclusion zones prohibit certain types of activity in their vicinity. Some idiot could order that they no longer appear on the charts – but since charts already exist showing the cables, all a terrorist needs do is find an old chart.
Let’s look instead at terrestrial fibres. Again: you could try to ban any map containing fibre locations from ever being made public, and to no avail: since the really important locations – say, near a Telstra CBD exchange – have pits in the street. If you know where the exchange is, you could do considerable damage armed only with a crow-bar, a jerry-can of petrol, and a lighter.
Then there’s street-works. My wife has spent a considerable chunk of the last three years in Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, and for most of that time, there’s been council work going on in surrounding streets. Every street gets marked, before the work starts, with paint indicating where a fibre is located, who it belongs to, and how far under the surface it is buried.
Of course, an evil-doer could take the easier option, and just read the carrier’s name on the plate on top of the pit. If you wanted to choose between Telstra, Optus, Uecomm (now owned by Optus but still emblazoned on pit-covers) – the infrastructure is advertised at street-level, on the pit-covers.
In spite of the most elaborate precautions, fibers get cut by earth-movers and cause disruption ranging from local to national. Does some misguided “keep the secret” spook in Canberra really want “backhoe terrorism” to become the norm rather than the exception?
*I realise that's not a comprehensive list of cables leaving Australia, but it's enough for discussion.
Next: Mobiles, electricity secrets
Mobiles, electricity secrets
Mobile infrastructure is another problem. Australia’s regulations are clear on this: every licensed radio transmitter is recorded in a public database administered by the ACMA. You can buy a copy of it, if you want, load it into a database, display it on a map.
If you’re bidding for the Square Kilometer Array, radio information is important: it lets you prove that a joint called Murchison in Western Australia is, in radio terms, nice and quiet (on the basis of radio silence, Australia had it hands-down over South Africa, but I’m not privy to the deliberations so I don’t know what other considerations held sway).
And Murchison was, while remote, within tolerable reach of fibre networks, which could only be known if the networks could be mapped.
Even data centres, some of which are treated as secrets by some people, leave footprints all over the place. I know journalists who have signed non-disclosure agreements before they visit facilities whose every important move – construction and extensive fit-outs – has been documented by local councils in the form of development approvals. So the journalist, self-bound by a signature, finds him- or herself forever forbidden from discussing public information.
Let’s look again at the NBN Co POIs.
The information is bound to leak, because in the end, it will be known to thousands of individuals. If, in a fit of national security paranoia, someone decides that it should not be in a convenient Telstra exchange (location not only known but emblazoned on every building), but in the data centre next door, that will become known.
The industry won’t be able to function without knowing the POI locations. It’s utterly fantastic to imagine that the information won’t leak.
I’ve focused on telecommunications infrastructure, because that's the world I'm most familiar with, but similar questions apply to other “infrastructure of national importance”.
Take the electricity grid. At a superficial level, it might seem that the location of high-voltage grid facilities should be a national secret. Except: people piloting aircraft or helicopters need to know where powerlines are. Otherwise, they’ll fly into them anytime visual navigation isn't possible. Even with maps, powerline accidents are depressingly common.
National security types are apt to chase every rabbit down every burrow – which is great for expanding their budget, personnel and powers, but does precious little to protect us from real threats. ®
Bootnote: ZDNet journalist Josh Taylor dug out the "national security" quote from the joint parliamentary committee hearing on the NBN last night, here. The ACCC professes to have "particularly strong views" on. ®