Blown To Bits

The President as the Commander-in-chief of Cybersecurity

Friday, April 3rd, 2009 by Harry Lewis

A draft cybersecurity bill empowers the president to commandeer the Internet under vaguely specified circumstances:

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 …

Now the Internet is inherently hard to control, because of its distributed architecture, and the vast numbers of private and governmental parties, spread across the globe. I wonder what would actually happen if he gave the order. The language of the bill also states that 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,

which may sound reasonable until you recall how capacious “national security” interests can be — broad enough that allowing the American public to see the draft of an anti-music-piracy trade agreement drafted with the assistance of the RIAA is also considered a national security threat. By that standard, the President could cut off your Internet connection if he though you were a file-sharing risk.

There is, moreover, a category of “Federal government and¬†private sector owned critical infrastructure information¬†systems and networks.” These are not defined in the proposed statute — the President (surprise) gets to say which systems and networks are “critical.” The bill then gives the government complete access to everything about them:

The Secretary of Commerce shall have access to all relevant data concerning such networks without regard to any provision of law, regulation, rule, or policy restricting such access.

Now I am guessing that the Internet backbone would be critical, don’t you think? Pretty much all traffic flows through the backbone, so it seems this clause may with one stroke of a pen invalidate ALL privacy laws and protections relating to electronic communications.

There is a lot in this bill to like — it calls for important research and creates some emergency-response structures that are likely to be more good than threatening. There is also much to make one suspicious — it leads with appeals to the economic importance of the Internet, and talks about “intellectual property” long before it mentions “banks.” But the worst seems to me in these few lines, where the drafters, our elected representatives, have said, “The government can seize control of it all and can look at everything.” So much for Congress checking the power of the executive to monitor and interfere with the communications of citizens!

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