Professors: Total Internet control by Obama impossible

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The regrettable phrase “Internet kill switch,” which has been linked to a recent cybersecurity bill introduced in the Senate, has begun circulating the Internet, causing confusion and angst.

Many people began to believe that President Barack Obama had his finger on a magic button that would take the Internet away from everyone – something that computer experts here on campus assure is highly improbable.

“It would certainly be difficult to accomplish completely, given the number of potential paths across the world,” said Daniel Andresen, associate professor in computing and information sciences.

There has been confusion over the proposed bill that Sens. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, proposed in April regarding cybersecurity. The confusion came from the wording used in the original version of the bill, which states:

1.) The president “may declare a cybersecurity emergency and order the limitation or shutdown of Internet traffic to and from any compromised Federal Government or United States critical infrastructure information system or network,” and

2.) The president “may order the disconnection of any Federal Government or United States critical infrastructure information systems or networks in the interest of national security.”

Simon Ou, assistant professor in computing and information sciences, said the president did not have the capability to do this, due to the structure of the Web.

“The Internet is composed of a large number of small networks, both in the U.S. and abroad, that are interconnected through various networking protocols,” Ou said. “I don’t think any one nation has the authority or capability to ‘shut down’ the Internet.”

The revised bill has not been made public, but information was made available in an Aug. 31 article by ComputerWorld.com. The bill still grants the president the power to declare a cybersecurity emergency, but the article makes no mention of limiting or shutting down Internet traffic. Instead, the president can “direct the national response to the cyber threat” with “relevant industry sectors.” The article speaks only of public and private networks, and omits any specific references to the Internet.

Changes were made to the wording of the bill in response to the many attacks made by critics who questioned the amount of control the president should have, particularly with regard to telling private networks when they may turn their networks back on after a cybersecurity emergency.

In spite of all the controversy, many still feel that cybersecurity is a critical issue that must be addressed.

“The nature of cyber attacks is that once a victim is captured by an attacker, it can be turned into weapons to attack other systems,” Ou said.

For example, if hackers were to hijack computers in K-State’s network, they could be used to attack other computer networks anywhere in the country, like those used in the U.S. power grid or in a nuclear reactor.

“In such situations, it may become necessary to isolate K-State campus network to stop the spread of attacks, or isolate the power companies’ networks to prevent them from being attacked,” Ou said.

The cybersecurity bill is still in the early stages, and more revisions are expected.

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