Friday, March 25, 2011

Controlling the internet

By Bob Confer

The nuclear crisis in Japan has stoked fears about the energy source throughout the world. Worries persist about deadly fallout brought on by disasters of the natural and manmade sort. When it comes to the latter, many government officials and their propagandists in mainstream media claim that our power plants are ripe for the picking by hackers and cyber-based terrorists who will tap into their networks and either shut them down or set them on the path to destruction. Such fear mongering came to the fore again last week when Fox News – always one to aid Homeland Security and find ratings in fear – interviewed a technology expert who reiterated that belief.

Before you go on thinking that the internet will be the death of us, just think of how stupid they think we are. The powers-that-be expect us to believe that our reactors are all tied into the internet and any brainy kid with a computer can do as he sees fit, like a real-life “War Games”, just without the happy Hollywood ending. Sure, some parts of their systems may be connected to the internet, mainly status monitors allowing managers to keep tabs while off-site, but the main dials are offline, maintained in the complexes’ own internal networks. Only a fool would connect a nuclear reactor’s controls to the world wide web. Only a fool would believe they actually do that.

The political class has tried their best, with some success, to fool the masses about this issue. Japan’s radiation fears certainly have and will help advance their efforts. But, where are their efforts grounded? Are they really as interested in cybersecurity as they say? It’s doubtful. It comes down to a matter of control. If the government can have direct control over the internet they can assume the same over the people.

That may seem like a far-fetched conspiracy, but look at how easily Egypt upended the net during the January uprisings. Fearing for its safety – the safety of the government, not the people – Egypt cut off 90% of the traffic into and out of the country. That’s not unprecedented in practice. A few years back Myanmar and Nepal shut off internet access entirely. Then there’s China, who takes censorship to great heights, allowing its 1.3 billion citizens to access only select content that conforms to the government’s belief system. Hundreds of thousands of websites in the Western World are kept inaccessible and the sites of domestic dissenters are immediately shutdown.

If a country of China’s size -- they have more internet users than America has citizens -- can do it, so can the US. And, that’s what they want. Last year Senator Joe Lieberman introduced the Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act that would institute the National Center for Cybersecurity and Communications (NCCC), a new federal bureaucracy that would monitor and regulate the security status of all private websites and internet service providers. Any company connected to the United States’ information infrastructure (internet and/or phone), which basically means all businesses, would be subject to command by the NCCC. Any website or network perceived to be a threat could be shut down without warning. It’s unknown exactly who and what comprises a threat. It may be a malicious virus, but then again it may be the website of those labeled as subversives.

The bill got little support in 2010 so Lieberman came back with nearly the same thing this year, just with a kinder and gentler name, the Cybersecurity and Internet Freedom Act. He’s taking a marketing approach with this endeavor, because who wouldn’t want internet freedom (though you’d be hard pressed to find any freedom within the bill)? This time around he may get some support. Not only are there the reenergized nuclear fears, but there’s the issue of WikiLeaks, too. The National Security Agency (NSA), among others, have openly labeled that site and others like it as threats, threats that should be taken down for the sake of national security.

It’s bound to happen, not only with WikiLeaks, but with any website, as harmless as it may be. For its relatively short life the internet has remained virtually unregulated and self-policed, but now that it’s mainstream it can be threatening to the balance of power in a given nation. Thus, as with all technologies (threatening or otherwise), it will someday face all-intrusive nanny state supervision.

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident and vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. in North Tonawanda. E-mail him at

This column originally ran in the 28 March 2011 Greater Niagara Newspapers

No comments: