Friday, January 28, 2011

The Egyptian kill switch: Can it happen here? (IMPORTANT UPDATE)

The head of the Project on Middle Eastern Democracy, Stephen McInerney, sent out the following:
Tomorrow the Egyptian people are planning to take to the streets to protest against the repressive, corrupt government of Hosni Mubarak, in numbers far greater than we saw on Tuesday. The government seems to be pulling out the stops to prevent this.

We've been getting phone calls from Egyptian activists that we work with in the past 90 minutes saying the following:

* The internet went down entirely in Egypt roughly an hour ago, 12:30 am Egypt time - first all access to the internet via computers, then also via cell phones (they could initially access the internet via cell phone after computers were not working).

* 1-2 hrs prior to that, all SMS text messaging went down.

* currently, we're being told that large numbers of plainsclothes police officers and security officers are going through the streets covering parked cars with gasoline. The activists expect that the govt plans to light all the cars on fire, claim that the protesters were burning everything, and use that as a pretext to use severe violence to repress the protests, and eliminating all means for the people to relay the truth out of the country.

* they are being told by sources within the regime that very large groups of govt-organized thugs, calling themselves "ikhwan al-Haq" [a group never heard of, roughly translated as "brotherhood of truth"], are going to be in the streets with knives, swords, etc..., attacking and killing protesters in the streets tomorrow; they don't know whether this may be deliberately and falsely leaked to discourage demonstrators; but they do see evidence that these groups are being organized. they may also claim that these violent groups are the demonstrators as a pretext to use violence on the real demonstrators.

* they are all expecting all mobile phone service to go down shortly

They are asking us to help spread the word on all of this information.
It seems that Mubarak was able to take this step because of a tech assist from an American company -- a subsidiary of Boeing.
Moreover, Egypt also has the ability to spy on Internet and cell phone users, by opening their communication packets and reading their contents. Iran used similar methods during the 2009 unrest to track, imprison and in some cases, "disappear" truckloads of cyber-dissidents.

The companies that profit from sales of this technology need to be held to a higher standard. One in particular is an American firm, Narus of Sunnyvale, Calif., which has sold Telecom Egypt "real-time traffic intelligence" equipment.

Narus, now owned by Boeing, was founded in 1997 by Israeli security experts to create and sell mass surveillance systems for governments and large corporate clients.

The company is best known for creating NarusInsight, a supercomputer system which is allegedly used by the National Security Agency and other entities to perform mass surveillance and monitoring of public and corporate Internet communications in real time.

Narus provides Egypt Telecom with Deep Packet Inspection equipment (DPI), a content-filtering technology that allows network managers to inspect, track and target content from users of the Internet and mobile phones, as it passes through routers on the information superhighway.
Anything that comes through (an Internet protocol network), we can record," Steve Bannerman, Narus' marketing vice president, once boasted to Wired about the service. "We can reconstruct all of their e-mails along with attachments, see what web pages they clicked on; we can reconstruct their (Voice Over Internet Protocol) calls."

Other North American and European companies are selling DPI to enable their business customers "to see, manage and monetize individual flows to individual subscribers." But this "Internet-enhancing" technology has been sought out by regimes in Iran, China and Burma for more brutal purposes.

In addition to Narus, there are a number of companies, including many others in the United States, that produce and traffic in similar spying and control technology. This list of DPI providers includes Zeugma Systems (Canada), Camiant (USA), Procera Networks (USA), Allot (Israel), Ixia (USA), AdvancedIO (Canada) and Sandvine (Canada), among others.

These companies typically partner with Internet Service Providers to insert DPI along the main arteries of the Web.
Many readers must be asking themselves the obvious follow-up question: How easy would it be to pull the internet plug in a country like the United States? Al Jazeera looked into that...
Experts say it is unlikely that what has happened in Egypt could happen in the United States because the US has numerous internet providers and ways of connecting to the internet. Co-ordinating a simultaneous shutdown would be a massive undertaking...

"It can't happen here," said Jim Cowie, the chief technology officer and a co-founder of Renesys, a network security firm in Manchester, New Hampshire, that studies internet disruptions.

"How many people would you have to call to shut down the US internet? Hundreds, thousands maybe? We have enough internet here that we can have our own internet. If you cut it off, that leads to a philosophical question: Who got cut off from the internet, us or the rest of the world?"

In fact, there are few countries anywhere with all their central internet connections in one place or so few places that they can be severed at the same time. But the idea of a single "kill switch" to turn the internet on and off has seduced some American lawmakers, who have pushed for the power to shutter the internet in a national emergency.
Ah. So just who are these American lawmakers?

What has been called an internet "kill switch" bill was sponsored by good old Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins (R) of Maine.
"We're not trying to mandate any requirements for the entire Internet, the entire Internet backbone," said Brandon Milhorn, Republican staff director and counsel for the committee.

Instead, Milhorn said at a conference in Washington, D.C., the point of the proposal is to assert governmental control only over those "crucial components that form our nation's critical infrastructure."
Sounds like double-talk. Why else would it be called a kill switch? Why was the bill rewritten to prevent court oversight of presidential decrees?

In order to sell the legislation, backers have conjured up the image of protecting the computers at Hoover Dam:
Under the revised legislation, the definition of critical infrastructure has been tightened. DHS is only supposed to place a computer system (including a server, Web site, router, and so on) on the list if it meets three requirements. First, the disruption of the system could cause "severe economic consequences" or worse. Second, that the system "is a component of the national information infrastructure." Third, that the "national information infrastructure is essential to the reliable operation of the system."
Requirement Three doesn't make much sense to me. Requirement One is too broad.

The phobia against court review is the telling detail -- the one which assures us that they are preparing for something more than an attack on Hoover Dam. I think that these guys fear that the libertarian misrule of America may one day lead to a situation similar to what we now see in Egypt. That's why the President wants to be able to do what Mubarak is doing.
Why the hell was it Al Jazeera that looked into this? Why weren't any US "reporters" interested in this?
"The recent uprising, revolution and new government in Tunisia was triggered, in no small part, thanks to a U.S. diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks detailing the corruption of the ruling family. That revolution helped spark the one going on right now in Egypt, where the people have taken to the streets to challenge the thirty-year, iron-fisted rule of Hosni Mubarik, a long-time U.S. ally. WikiLeaks has now released U.S. cables describing 'routine and pervasive' use of police brutality and widespread torture by the Egyptian state, our allies, against 'criminals, Islamist detainees, opposition activists and bloggers,' as The Guardian describes the leaked cables today."
"Just what impact Anonymous' WikiLeak faxes might have isn't clear, given that thousands of young Egyptians are already on the streets and experiencing human rights abuses firsthand–not sitting in their offices waiting by the fax machine. But just as WikiLeaks may have helped inspire Tunisia’s non-violent ouster of its ruler Ben Ali earlier this month, the latest WikiLeaks documents could help dispel any remaining illusions Egyptians have about their government and its police force, which frequently tortures and brutalizes suspects and dissidents, according to the leaked cables."
As you pointed out, the threat of absolute govt control over the internet as evidenced by the Collins litigation is real and dangerous. What possible reason could Obama want for it prior to the next elections season??

Hopefully, the events in Egypt will not unfold as your contact has detailed. Why we can't get the real story from the US papers about what is happening in Egypt is baffling. Who has most to gain to keep the Mubarak regime in power? Since we are dependent upon them for access to the Suez and oil, it doesn't surprise me that the corporate media giants are engaging yet again in media censorship.
To some of your posters: this HAS been highly covered in the press, but mostly in the tech sector niche.

First thing to note is that under the Communications Act of 1934 the President already has the right to seize control of the Internet on threat of war. This bill is much narrower in focus, is designed to protect infrastructure, and deals primarily with cyber warfare. The main disagreement over it, currently, has to do with lack of judicial review only in the area of what is designating as protected infrastructure.

Personally, I think having a law like this is very important. The potential dangers of a Stuxnet-like worm or related virus are very real. The aging software that automates many of our mechanical systems around the country has been jerry-rigged to be controlled by more modern operating systems and is vulnerable to outside manipulation once security is breached.

I agree that the lack of judicial review is an issue, but the reason for it is far more complicated than a simple grab for power. Large Software corps like Microsoft and Oracle are concerned that the proposed law will cost them big on the compliance end and, while generally supporting the law, are fighting for the inclusion of judicial review. Homeland Security planners don't want to have to argue with Big Industry lawyers every time they make a departmental decision not to their liking. That's really what the whole judicial review argument is over. I'm on the fence, leaning toward judicial review being a good idea. Don't worry, though; if you are strongly in the judicial review camp, you have Microsoft and Oracle lawyers on your side.

As for a "kill switch" on the Internet (meaning the power to commander or shut down all commercial operations related to it) in times of National Emergency, the President has already had that power over all wire-based communications for nearly eighty years.
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