Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Schneier and Zittrain on digital security and the power of metaphors

Bruce Schneier is one of the world’s leading cryptographers and theorists of security. Jonathan Zittrain is a celebrated law professor, theorist of digital technology and wonderfully performative lecturer. The two share a stage at Harvard Law School’s Langdell Hall. JZ introduces Bruce as the inventor of the phrase “security theatre”, author of a leading textbook on cryptography and subject of a wonderful internet meme.

The last time the two met on stage, they were arguing different sides of an issue – threats of cyberwar are grossly exaggerated – in an Oxford-style debate. Schneier was baffled that, after the debate, his side lost. He found it hard to believe that more people thought that cyberwar was a real threat than an exaggeration, and realized that there is a definitional problem that makes discussing cyberwar challenging.

Schneier continues, “It used to be, in the real world, you judged the weaponry. If you saw a tank driving at you, you know it was a real war because only a government could buy a tank.” In cyberwar, everyone uses the same tools and tactics – DDoS, exploits. It’s hard to tell if attackers are governments, criminals or individuals. You could call almost anyone to defend you – the police, the government, the lawyers. You never know who you’re fighting against, which makes it extremely hard to know what to defend. “And that’s why I lost”, Schneier explains – if you use a very narrow definition of cyberwar, as Schneier did, cyberwar threats are almost always exaggerated.

Zittrain explains that we’re not debating tonight, but notes that Schneier appears already to be conceding some ground in using the word “weapon” to explore digital security issues. Schneier’s new book is not yet named, but Zittrain suggests it might be called “Be afraid, be very afraid,” as it focuses on asymmetric threats, where reasonably technically savvy people may not be able to defend themselves.

Schneier explains that we, as humans, accept a certain amount of bad action in society. We accept some bad behavior, like crime, in exchange for some flexibility in terms of law enforcement. If we worked for a zero murder rate, we’d have too many false arrests, too much intrusive security – we accept some harm in exchange for some freedom. But Bruce explains that in the digital world, it’s possible for bad actors to do asymmetric amounts of harm – one person can cause a whole lot of damage. As the amount of damage a bad actor can create, our tolerance for bad actors decreases. This, Bruce explains, is the weapon of mass destruction debate – if a terrorist can access a truly deadly bioweapon, perhaps we change our laws to radically ratchet up enforcement.

JZ offers a summary: we can face doom from terrorism or doom from a police state. Bruce riffs on this: if we reach a point where a single bad actor can destroy society – and Bruce believes this may be possible – what are the chances society can get past that moment. “We tend to run a pretty wide-tail bell curve around our species.”

Schneier considers the idea that attackers often have a first-mover advantage. While the police do a study of the potentials of the motorcar, the bank robbers are using them as getaway vehicles. There may be a temporal gap when the bad actors can outpace the cops, and we might imagine that gap being profoundly destructive at some point in the near future.

JZ wonders whether we’re attributing too much power to bad actors, implicitly believing they are as powerful as governments. But governments have the ability to bring massive multiplier effects into play. Bruce concedes that his is true in policing – radios have been the most powerful tool for policing, bringing more police into situations where the bad guys have the upper hand.

Bruce explains that he’s usually an optimist, so it’s odd to have this deeply pessimistic essay out in the world. JZ notes that there are other topics to consider: digital feudalism, the topic of Bruce’s last book, in which corporate actors have profound power over our digital lives, a subject JZ is also deeply interested in.

Expanding on the idea of digital feudalism, Bruce explains that if you pledge you allegiance to an internet giant like Apple, your life is easy, and they pledge to protect you. Many of us pledge allegiance to Facebook, Amazon, Google. These platforms control our data and our devices – Amazon controls what can be in your Kindle, and if they don’t like your copy of 1984, they can remove it. When these feudal lords fight, we all suffer – Google Maps disappear from the iPad. Feudalism ended as nation-states rose and the former peasants began to demand rights.

JZ suggests some of the objections libertarians usually offer to this set of concerns. Isn’t there a Chicken Little quality to this? Not being able to get Google Maps on your iPad seems like a “glass half empty” view given how much technological process we’ve recently experienced. Bruce offers his fear that sites like Google will likely be able to identify gun owners soon, based on search term history. Are we entering an age where the government doesn’t need to watch you because corporations are already watching so closely? What happens if the IRS can decide who to audit based on checking what they think you should make in a year and what credit agencies know you’ve made? We need to think this through before this becomes a reality.

JZ leads the audience through a set of hand-raising exercises: who’s on Facebook, who’s queasy about Facebook’s data policies, and who would pay $5 a month for a Facebook that doesn’t store your behavioral data? Bruce explains that the question is the wrong one; it should be “Who would pay $5 a month for a secure Facebook where all your friends are over on the insecure one – if you’re not on Facebook, you don’t hear about parties, you don’t see your friends, you don’t get laid.”

Why would Schneier believe governments would regulate this space in a helpful way, JZ asks? Schneier quotes Martin Luther King, Jr. – the arc of history is long but bends towards justice. It will take a long time for governments to figure out how to act justly in this space, perhaps a generation or two, Schneier argues that we need some form of regulation to protect against these feudal barons. As JZ translates, you believe there needs to be a regulatory function that corrects market failures, like the failure to create a non-intrusive social network… but you don’t think our current screwed-up government can write these laws. So what do we do now?

Schneier has no easy answer, noting that it’s hard to trust a government that breaks its own laws, surveilling its own population without warrant or even clear reason. But he quotes a recent Glenn Greenwald piece on marriage equality, which notes that the struggle for marriage equality seemed impossible until about three months ago, and now seems almost inevitable. In other words, don’t lose hope.

JZ notes that Greenwald is one of the people who’s been identified as an ally/conspirator to Wikileaks, and one of the targets of a possible “dirty tricks” campaign by H.B. Gary, a “be afraid, be very afraid” security firm that got p0wned by Anonymous. Schneier is on record as being excited about leaking – JZ wonders how he feels about Anonymous.

Schneier notes how remarkable it is that a group of individuals started making threats against NATO. JZ finds it hard to believe that Schneier would take those threats seriously, noting that Anon has had civil wars where one group will apologize that their servers have been compromised and should be ignored as they’re being hacked by another faction – how can we take threats from a group like that seriously? Schneier notes that a non-state, decentralized actor is something we need to take very seriously.

The conversation shifts to civil disobedience in the internet age. JZ wonders whether Schneier believes that DDoS can be a form of protest, like a sit in or a picket line. Schneier explains that you used to be able to tell by the weaponry – if you were sitting in, it was a protest. But there’s DDoS extortion, there’s DDoS for damage, for protest, and because school’s out and we’re bored. Anonymous, he argues, was engaged in civil disobedience and intentions matter.

JZ notes that Anonymous, in their very name, wants civil disobedience without the threat of jail. But, to be fair, he notes that you don’t get sentenced to 40 years in jail for sitting at a lunch counter. Schneier notes that we tend to misclassify cyber protest cases so badly, he’d want to protest anonymously too. But he suggests that intentions are at the heart of understanding these actions. It makes little sense, he argues, that we prosecute murder and attempted murder with different penalties – if the intention was to kill, does it matter that you are a poor shot?

A questioner in the audience asks about user education: is the answer to security problems for users to learn a security skillset in full? Zittrain notes that some are starting to suggest internet driver’s licenses before letting users online. Schneier argues that user education is a cop-out. Security is interconnected – in a very real way, “my security is a function of my mother remembering to turn the firewall back on”. These security holes open because we design crap security. We can’t pop up incomprehensible warnings that people will click through. We need systems that are robust enough to deal with uneducated users.

Another questioner asks what metaphors we should use to understand internet security – War? Public health? Schneier argues against the war metaphor, because in wars we sacrifice anything in exchange to win. Police might be a better metaphor, as we put checks on their power and seek a balance between freedom and control of crime. Biological metaphors might be even stronger – we are starting to see thinking about computer viruses influencing what we know about biological viruses. Zittrain suggests that an appropriate metaphor is mutual aid: we need to look for ways we can help each other out under attack, which might mean building mobile phones that are two way radios which can route traffic independent of phone towers. Schneier notes that internet as infrastructure is another helpful metaphor – a vital service like power or water we try to keep accessible and always flowing.

A questioner wonders whether Schneier’s dissatisfaction with the “cyberwar” metaphor comes from the idea that groups like anonymous are roughly organized groups, not states. Schneier notes that individuals are capable of great damage – the assassination of a Texas prosecutor, possibly by the Aryan Brotherhood – but we treat these acts as crime. Wars, on the other hand, are nation versus nation. We responded to 9/11 by invading a country – it’s not what the FBI would have done if they were responding to it. Metaphors matter.


I had the pleasure of sitting with Willow Brugh, who did a lovely Prezi visualization of the talk – take a look!

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