Dark Reading is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them.Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.


11:20 AM
Connect Directly

Giving Government Power To Unplug The Internet

In the best-case scenario, that power could enable a president to prevent cyberattacks on the power grid, air traffic control systems or the root of the Internet.

As the U.S. government considers significant changes to federal cybersecurity regulations, one line item in proposed Senate legislation shows why companies and citizens should pay attention.

The bill would give the president explicit power to turn off computer networks in the interest of national security.

In the best-case scenario, that power could enable a president to prevent cyberattacks on the power grid, air traffic control systems, or the root of the Internet. On the other hand, the government would be given the power to shut down vital telecommunications, financial, and corporate networks with self-serving claims of national security interest.

The bill, from Sens. John Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, is part of a larger debate over what federal powers are necessary for cybersecurity. The bill and related legislation come as the Defense Department this week said it spent $100 million in just six months fighting cyberattacks and the White House nears completion of a national cybersecurity review.

If used correctly, the power isn't likely to be executed except in the direst of situations.

"I guess the question is, what criteria arises to that level, because we haven't yet seen it," said Bruce Brody, chief security officer for the Analysis Group and former chief information security officer at two federal agencies. "I do not foresee the set of circumstances that would cause him to pull the trigger unless the nation's critical infrastructure was under some very threatening circumstances."

According to a Wall Street Journal report on Wednesday, Russian and Chinese spies have hacked into the U.S. electrical grid and left behind malware. If true, the hacking raises the possibility of a scenario where the president or a top cybersecurity aide might need to take decisive action to turn off select parts of the power grid, for example in the case of an actual attack, in order to protect the nation's commerce.

A major attack on the Internet's root DNS servers, or more targeted at federal networks, could make it necessary for the president to order the shutdown of significant networks, said Rod Beckstrom, former Homeland Security cybersecurity director. That often can be combated without such extreme measures, by blocking certain IP addresses -- a presidential power also explicit in the Rockefeller-Snowe legislation -- or by taking other corrective measures.

But "if you've got a foreign hostile party with 100 coordinated hackers attacking you at any one time, or a bot army, the most effective thing you can do might be to unplug," Beckstrom said. In any such circumstance, he said, a civil liberties board would be put in place that could override the president's decision, though it could also be overridden. Another option -- aimed at maintaining security while preserving commercial activities and civil liberties -- may be to require private network operators to police their own networks in the case of a major cyberattack.

"Once you give that extraordinary power, it will be hard to walk back from it," said Leslie Harris, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology. "Let's figure out the problems, figure out if targeted legislation is necessary, and then do that in a way that is warranted and measured. The potential for abuse and inappropriate use in the wrong administration is something we should not be enacting."

2009 marks the 12th year that InformationWeek will be monitoring changes in security practices through our annual research survey. All who complete the survey and provide their contact information will be entered into our prize drawing for a 46-inch Sony Bravia V Series LCD flat-panel HDTV, valued at $1799.99.Find out more, and take part by April 26.


Recommended Reading:

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
COVID-19: Latest Security News & Commentary
Dark Reading Staff 7/9/2020
Introducing 'Secure Access Service Edge'
Rik Turner, Principal Analyst, Infrastructure Solutions, Omdia,  7/3/2020
Russian Cyber Gang 'Cosmic Lynx' Focuses on Email Fraud
Kelly Sheridan, Staff Editor, Dark Reading,  7/7/2020
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Current Issue
Special Report: Computing's New Normal, a Dark Reading Perspective
This special report examines how IT security organizations have adapted to the "new normal" of computing and what the long-term effects will be. Read it and get a unique set of perspectives on issues ranging from new threats & vulnerabilities as a result of remote working to how enterprise security strategy will be affected long term.
Flash Poll
The Threat from the Internetand What Your Organization Can Do About It
The Threat from the Internetand What Your Organization Can Do About It
This report describes some of the latest attacks and threats emanating from the Internet, as well as advice and tips on how your organization can mitigate those threats before they affect your business. Download it today!
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
PUBLISHED: 2020-07-09
An information leak was discovered on Yubico YubiKey 5 NFC devices 5.0.0 to 5.2.6 and 5.3.0 to 5.3.1. The OTP application allows a user to set optional access codes on OTP slots. This access code is intended to prevent unauthorized changes to OTP configurations. The access code is not checked when u...
PUBLISHED: 2020-07-09
In TimelineJS before version 3.7.0, some user data renders as HTML. An attacker could implement an XSS exploit with maliciously crafted content in a number of data fields. This risk is present whether the source data for the timeline is stored on Google Sheets or in a JSON configuration file. Most T...
PUBLISHED: 2020-07-09
The tough library (Rust/crates.io) prior to version 0.7.1 does not properly verify the threshold of cryptographic signatures. It allows an attacker to duplicate a valid signature in order to circumvent TUF requiring a minimum threshold of unique signatures before the metadata is considered valid. A ...
PUBLISHED: 2020-07-09
A reflected Cross-Site Scripting (XSS) Vulnerability in the KingComposer plugin through 2.9.4 for WordPress allows remote attackers to trick a victim into submitting an install_online_preset AJAX request containing base64-encoded JavaScript (in the kc-online-preset-data POST parameter) that is execu...
PUBLISHED: 2020-07-09
IBM Guardium Activity Insights 10.6 and 11.0 does not set the secure attribute on authorization tokens or session cookies. Attackers may be able to get the cookie values by sending a http:// link to a user or by planting this link in a site the user goes to. The cookie will be sent to the insecure l...