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Risk

5/15/2008
03:41 PM
George V. Hulme
George V. Hulme
Commentary
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What's So Bad About An Air Force Botnet?

Air Force Col. Charles W. Williamson III proposes the armed service branch ready and deploy a massive global botnet capable of digitally choking our adversaries. Some don't like the idea. I'm wondering why this botnet hasn't been built yet.

Air Force Col. Charles W. Williamson III proposes the armed service branch ready and deploy a massive global botnet capable of digitally choking our adversaries. Some don't like the idea. I'm wondering why this botnet hasn't been built yet.Col. Williamson recently proposed the idea in the Armed Forces Journal. Here's the nutshell:

America needs a network that can project power by building an af.mil robot network (botnet) that can direct such massive amounts of traffic to target computers that they can no longer communicate and become no more useful to our adversaries than hunks of metal and plastic. America needs the ability to carpet bomb in cyberspace to create the deterrent we lack.

Sounds fine to me. As long as civilian PCs won't be conscripted without their knowledge. Of course, if asked, I've a number of systems I'd happily volunteer into service. Here's how this mother-of-all botnets would be built and maintained:

The U.S. would not, and need not, infect unwitting computers as zombies. We can build enough power over time from our own resources. Rob Kaufman, of the Air Force Information Operations Center, suggests mounting botnet code on the Air Force's high-speed intrusion-detection systems. Defensively, that allows a quick response by directly linking our counterattack to the system that detects an incoming attack. The systems also have enough processing speed and communication capacity to handle large amounts of traffic.

Next, in what is truly the most inventive part of this concept, Lt. Chris Tollinger of the Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Agency envisions continually capturing the thousands of computers the Air Force would normally discard every year for technology refresh, removing the power-hungry and heat-inducing hard drives, replacing them with low-power flash drives, then installing them in any available space every Air Force base can find. Even though those computers may no longer be sufficiently powerful to work for our people, individual machines need not be cutting-edge because the network as a whole can create massive power.

After that, the Air Force could add botnet code to all its desktop computers attached to the Nonsecret Internet Protocol Network (NIPRNet). Once the system reaches a level of maturity, it can add other .mil computers, then .gov machines.

Again, I don't see anything wrong with this proposal. The Air Force is going to use its own equipment to put into place a botnet. That botnet would be able to deliver a crippling impact on any adversaries when necessary. And why shouldn't "Shock and Awe" include some DDoS power to coincide with a physical offensive?

Kevin Poulsen over at Wired's Threat Level blog doesn't think it's such a good idea:

I'm sure that DDoS attacks could be useful to the military under certain circumstances. So could sending our enemies a bunch of unwanted magazine subscriptions, or ordering them dozens of pizzas with anchovies and pineapple (blech). But adults don't do that sort of thing.

The Internet is a community venture, and DDoS is vandalism against the community. There's no such thing as pinpoint targeting in a DDoS attack; innocent civilian infrastructure is impacted every time.

I don't agree with Poulsen on this one. While a massive DDoS might create some availability issues for some systems caught between the Air Force's bots and the target systems, it'd only be temporary. This type of collateral damage is much better than that created by scrap metal.

Besides, we need every offensive and defensive capability that our adversaries have, only bigger and better. Plus, hopefully, some that haven't even been imagined.

That way, maybe if a nation-state launches an attack, we can respond by shutting down as much of that nation's communications and network infrastructure as possible. Not to mention their ability to conduct financial transactions and turn on the lights.

Let's get it built already. Or, tell me why I'm wrong.

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