Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Guest Post: Our Vulnerable Internet

By John T. Wark

The New York Times’s recent in-depth article on how Russians apparently hacked into computer systems during the presidential election raises alarms: the Internet is not your friend.

The article revealed how unprepared  the Clinton campaign and others  were and how casual the attitude of FBI was. Yet everybody knows  — or should know — how fragile and vulnerable are our Internet infrastructure assets. Look at what Russia is said to have done in Ukraine.

From the  NYT story:

"Last year, the attacks became more aggressive. Russia hacked a major French television station, frying critical hardware. Around Christmas, it attacked part of the power grid in Ukraine, dropping a portion of the country into darkness, killing backup generators and taking control of generators. In retrospect, it was a warning shot.
"The attacks “were not fully integrated military operations,” Mr. Sulmeyer said. But they showed an increasing boldness."

The Internet by its very structure remains vulnerable everywhere. The great irony is that the Internet structure was designed back when it was university-based and funded by U.S. Department of Defense. This network of networks was intentionally designed so that the packets of information we send on it follow random pathways. It was thought if the country's infrastructure was attacked the Internet piece would be safe because information would still move freely on any portion that remained, thanks to that random patterning.

The problem is that the servers the packets zip between randomly from your home computer to mine must be able to "read" the data that give instructions to the server relay stations on what to do with the packets. To accomplish this, though, resulted in a design protocol that meant everyone can see everyone else's packets.

Thus, bad actors can steal info almost effortlessly. Which accounts for the frequent publicized reports about Target or a federal agency being hacked and the many billions of bits of information about everybody's credit accounts and personal identity being stolen all around the globe.

And it also is why stories like this one in the NYT show the victims/targets acting defensively by introducing programs into their systems that allow them to "detect" intruders. You will note articles never say the DoD, Bank of America, or DNC took step A, B or C to totally prevent a cyberattack. 

Because that's not realistic and may no longer even be possible. 

To make the Internet secure would probably involve a redesign. Packets of information would likely no longer travel randomly and in a way that allows everyone to see everyone else. If you control the packet movements you can lock out bad actors.

But then the entire Internet economy collapses. Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc. (and every bit of monetization attached to them) are built on the random packet "everyone can see everyone else" movement structure. It is the DNA of their business model and today dominates the world's communication structure. Internet companies, foreign governments, our government, advertisers, the joker down the street who studied programming at the local community college and now builds bots to go out and scrape info from websites and return it to him -- they all "see" us and what we do and where we go on the Internet, often tracking us using cookies. The big companies (governments) grind up the info they gather in their algorithm machines and that allows them to anticipate what ads you should see and what information you should get first when searching or doing whatever it is we do on the Internet. 

It is another feature of the "new normal" in today's world that our children, friends and neighbors are familiar with military grade communication encryption AND why we are all routinely advised to use it.

Of course, encrypted messages or only as good as the encryptors. Governments have proven successful at convincing companies to give them the keys. So called "blunt force" computer attacks have cracked the privacy features baked into iPhones. And so on. Nothing is safe. (*)

This is all by way of saying I wish articles like this one in NYT included a few graphs that reminded readers that we wedded an incredibly powerful profit-driven commercial enterprise to a system designed to enable university researchers at different ends of the earth to communicate with one another, hooked in everybody on earth, including Wall Street, ingenious thieves (are they the same?) and governments out to eviscerate each other -- with no way of securely protecting ourselves from bad things happening. And the big Internet companies all know this.

If we lived in honest times, whenever we powered up a computer and heard that banal and benign musical upswell that sounds the audible brand notes of Apple or Microsoft (PC or Mac) there would immediately follow a flashing message:

WARNING: This is a powerful and useful communication tool. But its use may be likened to immediately unlocking your home, file cabinets, home safes and bank safety deposit boxes, and most intimate communications for anyone in the world to gain access. The user/consumer assumes all responsibility and acknowledges that all of his/her activities and personal information is at all times at risk of being viewed, stolen and used without permission by other Internet users. (Sometimes even when your information is encrypted and your computer is turned off.) There is nothing that can be done about this. (If anyone could fix it, don't you think it would have been done by now?)

The new normal. 

Not surprising that such a system would play such a pivotal part in elevating the executive producer of The Apprentice to the once most important public office  of the once most important free democracy on earth.

And not surprising that he should use it to communicate lies and falsehoods instantly to millions. 

This is merely another facet of the "new normal."

I just realized that the term "new normal" is like "alt right." It white washes the darker truth.

It is a doubly ironic term.

What a price we are paying for technology. 

There is no way, once in, to opt out. 
* * *

(*) A free (end to end) encrypted message service popular with security researchers and privacy advocates (including Edward J. Snowden) is the messaging app Signal.  Android version available via Google Play. And iOS version is available via iTunes. There's also now a Chrome app that can link with a Signal client. (Signal uses cell phone numbers as identifiers and end-to-end encryption to secure communications to other Signal users. The person(s) you are communicating with also have to use the app to exchange/get/send info with you.)

This Is Your Country

How depressing it is to consider all the realities of being an American citizen today.

This is the fourth anniversary of the Sandy Hook atrocity.  On December 14, 2012, a gunman slaughtered 26 people including 20 first-grade children at an elementary school in Newtown,Conn.

Reality No. 1 — No significant change has taken place since that date in our gun laws, nor is any significant change likely when the new regime takes office in January.  What is more likely is that protections of the mythical right to bear arms will be strengthened.  The slaughters of innocents will continue.

Here are some other realities about life in these formerly United States:

—Your public lands — parks, open spaces, recreation areas — will become wastelands.  For years, extractors of climate-changing fossil fuels have coveted the riches under, for example, Arches National Park near Moab, UT.  Now they will be given free rein to savage that park at their pleasure. Chaco Canyon national cultural preserve in New Mexico.  National forest land in Colorado, California and Alaska.  Rivers and streams.  Yes, even the purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain.  All will be devastated because there will be no rules, no governance.  Profiteers will be free to plunder.

—You will buy your drinking water from corporations like Nestle.  It may or may not be pure, may or may not be safe.  There will be no inspectors to verify its safety, no regulations to require its purity, no agencies to curb price-gouging.  Everyone will live in Flint.  

—Only the rich will be able to afford sickness or surgery.  Health insurance costs will soar.  Doctors’ and hospital fees will increase tenfold.  Prescription drug prices will rise, on average, 20 per cent per year.  Some of the most important (because they are life-preserving) medicines will increase in price ten times over, fifty times over . . . . there will be no limits. Obamacare, Medicare and Medicaid will vanish.  Nothing will replace them.  The old folks will not only lose their Medicare; their Social security will also be cut to the bone.  Younger people fortunate enough to have jobs will have to either support their aging parents or leave them to die.  Working people, absent a minimum wage or federal safeguards regarding pay and working conditions, often will face such dilemmas as choosing between buying food, paying the rent or buying clothing.  

—Millions of home buyers will lose their houses to foreclosure.  There will be absolutely no curbs on the rapacious banksters who caused the collapse of 2008.  Their best friends have already been appointed to high office in the new regime.

--Roe v. Wade will be overturned.  Get pregnant, bear the child.  Or else.

—Thousands of your friends and relatives will die in wars in far-off places.  They will be told they are fighting to make America great again.  In fact they will be fighting to protect the interests and profits of Exxon-Mobile, Gulf, Trump enterprises and the makers of war machines.

—The enormous total of American debt in the hands of Chinese citizens, banks and the government will be called in.  Swaths of the U.S. economy will collapse.  The president-elect owes huge sums to China; when it’s called in the Russian oligarchy will bail him out and the White House will issue torrents of vile Tweets racially demeaning the Chinese. 

—White racists will menace, abuse and even kill people of color, Muslims, Hispanics and native Americans.  It will be wanton, ruthless and go unpunished. White racists will seize absolute control of state and local police forces.  They will be armed with enough surplus military equipment to invade most of the Third World if they so chose.  Not just water cannons but real cannons will disperse crowds of protesters in your towns and cities.

—Waterboarding “and far worse,” to use the president-elect’s own words, will become de facto common law in your country.  Sass the policeman ticketing you for your “Resist” bumper sticker and you’ll do time, hearing the screams of the prisoner in the adjoining cell undergoing torture.

—Christianity will become the official religion of your country.  Non-believers will be shamed, excluded from work and deprived of the vote. There will be no public schools.  If you want to send your children to school, you will line up outside the courthouse to apply for vouchers.  These will enable you to send the kids to brainwashing centers called charter schools.  

Eventually there might even be federal training centers for adolescent boys to teach them the presidential art of pussy-grabbing. The question is, would it be put under Betsy DeVos’s department of education or Ryan Zinke’s department of the interior?