US plans ‘internet kill switch’ amid Middle East turmoil

30 Jan 2011

In what has to be the ultimate irony or simply bad timing, the United States is in the midst of revisiting the creation of an internet kill switch to defend against cyber warfare just as Egypt on Friday moved to block internet access to stem free speech.

The legislation, which is being led by US Republican Senator Susan Collins, is ostensibly designed to create presidential powers to shut off the internet to protect against significant cyber crime threats to national security.

It is designed to create a mechanism where the US government can work with the private sector in the event of a ‘true cyber emergency.’

While Collins says the legislation is not designed to give any US president the same power that oppressive Middle East regimes such as that of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, the timing of the bill could not be worse.

On Friday, Egypt instigated a crackdown on the internet and mobile phones to prevent images and reports emerging, particularly via email, Facebook and Twitter, and to prevent rallies taking place.

Free speech and the internet

The role of the internet and social media in shedding light on the harsh realities of regimes such as those in Tunisia, Iran and most recently Egypt, cannot be underestimated.

However, the notion of a kill switch or powers to shut down the internet cast a sinister light and could be a thorn in the side for US President Barack Obama’s government.

In the free world, you have to struggle to imagine such a kill switch ever being activated and again you have to wonder can cyber attacks manifest to such a level that they do threaten national security of any nation?

Russia’s alleged cyber attack on Estonia over the removal of a war memorial succeeded in shutting down banks and freezing internet access in that country in 2009 and there have been recent examples of Israel’s cyber war experts devising the Stuxnet worm to cripple Iran’s nuclear programme.

Despite this, some experts claim that cyber warfare may not threaten global security. According to an OECD/Symantec report on cyber warfare by independent experts Dr Peter Sommer from the London School of Economics and Dr Ian Brown from Oxford University, few cyber-related events have the capacity to cause a global shock. Nevertheless, they say, governments need to have detailed plans in place to withstand and recover from unwanted cyber events.

In light of the Estonian incidents and the Stuxnet worm, it would be naïve to suggest cyber warfare is not a threat and the US like any country needs to protect itself.

However, in the event of any crisis it is the internet itself that could prove vital in ensuring people know what is going on, can find refuge and reunite with loved ones.

The concept of a kill switch is therefore chilling and in light of the turmoil in Egypt communicates a sinister message.

The fact that the kill switch legislation sailed through the US Homeland Security Committee and was only stopped because of the expiry of Congress, is also a concern because it doesn’t seem to have attracted significant debate among the public.

Egypt’s shutdown of its well-developed internet infrastructure, consisting copper, fibre, satellite, cellular and more, didn’t happen at the press of a single button. Most likely various service providers were told to shut their services individually in a move obviously designed move to curb freedom of speech.

So right now, there is no giant red button. Most likely, if the US did enact such legislation, shutting down internet services would have to happen in partnership with private enterprises.

Then again if cyber warfare in the form of worms and viruses did present a threat to networks, who’s to say military strategists and researchers aren’t working on technology to close down networks in one fell swoop?

The internet, though born out of the Cold War, should represent the opportunity for a bright, transparent, safe and exciting future for many. However, its use as a tool of oppression and the ever-flaring battles over privacy suggest a long and rocky road ahead.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years