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Monday, October 10, 2011

Spying, Skynet, and Cybersecurity

The drones used by the U.S. Air Force have been infected by malware - reportedly, a program that logs the commands transmitted from the pilots' computers at a base in Nevada to the drones flying over Iraq and Afghanistan. This has led to comparisons to Skynet, particularly since the Terminators' network was supposed to become self-aware in April. While I think we don't yet need to stock up on robot-sniffing dogs, the malware situation is worrisome, for three reasons.

First, the military is aware of the virus's presence, but is reportedly unable to prevent it from re-installing itself even after they clean off the computers' drives. Wired reports that re-building the computers is time-consuming. That's undoubtedly true, but cyber-threats are an increasing part of warfare, and they'll soon be ubiquitous. I've argued that resilience is a critical component of cybersecurity. The Department of Defense needs to assume that their systems will be compromised - because they will - and to plan for recovery. Prevention is impossible; remediation is vital.

Second, the malware took hold despite the air gap between the drones' network and the public Internet. The idea of separate, isolated networks is a very attractive one in security, but it's false comfort. In a world where flash drives are ubiquitous, where iPods can store files, and where one can download sensitive data onto a Lady Gaga CD, information will inevitably cross the gap. Separation may be sensible as one security measure, but it is not a panacea.

Lastly, the Air Force is the branch of the armed forces currently in the lead in terms of cyberspace and cybersecurity initiatives. If they can't solve this problem, do we want them taking the lead on this new dimension of the battlefield?

It's not clear how seriously the drones' network has been compromised - security breaches have occurred before. But cybersecurity is difficult. We saw the first true cyberweapon in Stuxnet, which damaged Iran's nuclear centrifuges and set back its uranium enrichment program. That program too looked benign, on first inspection. Let's hope the program here is closer to Kyle Reese than a T-1000.

Posted by Derek Bambauer on October 10, 2011 at 05:55 PM in Information and Technology, International Law, Web/Tech | Permalink

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Comments

*no clue

Posted by: anon | Oct 11, 2011 12:14:03 AM

There is so much knowledge that we should be teaching our youth, that we don't teach them because they enter the wrong programs. I have clue how to even begin analyzing a stuxnet or a drone virus. I might as well be a caveman trying to figure out an internal combustion engine.

I don't mean to beat a dead horse, but this is another reason why we need to fix the "law school scam." The nation needs about 25,000 new lawyers per year, but 50,000 kids enroll because of the false job placement statistics. Those 25,000 would have been better off getting an education in e.g. this type of software programming and for $200,000 they could have afforded an outstanding program.

There is so much knowledge to impart to our youth. Let's not waste that opportunity.

Posted by: anon | Oct 11, 2011 12:13:18 AM

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