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."

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