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In which we look at security, warfare, turf battles, and social discord on the Net. Plus, neat magazines and a question about lasers!

Netwar, Part One

The origin myth of the Internet tells us that the Net was designed by the US Department of Defense as a way for digital communications to withstand nuclear attack. Accurate or not, it makes for good storytelling. The Net is a hydra: chop off one head, and two more grow in its place. As the story goes, if you take down a router, the Net will juggle packets until a new path is found. Netizens quickly grasped the larger meaning of this power: as John Gilmore told us, the Net treats censorship as damage and routes around it. But what really happens when the Net is intentionally attacked?

Such attacks are probably more common than we'd like to think. Many net sites are vulnerable to attack, at least according to Dan Farmer, author of the system administrator security tool called SATAN. In a (non-intrusive) survey of over 1700 large web sites, Farmer discovered that over two-thirds had serious security problems. He's not releasing any names-- he even deleted his results off his hard disk to avoid anyone else getting them. The survey conclusions are worth taking a look at, especially if you run a web site.

The sorts of attacks that are possible is beyond the scope of this piece. If you're truly interested, check out the Computer Emergency Response Team website (or, for a somewhat different perspective, the home page of 2600: A Hacker Quarterly). Not all attacks, unfortunately, can be stopped even with proper security measures. An example of a recent hard-to-block attack method is the so-called Ping Of Death. Just by slightly altering one of the most common TCP/IP tools, an unscrupulous user can cause a wide assortment of workstation types to freeze or crash. Simple and devastating.

If you can't protect your system, at least you can try to protect your e-mail and web surfing. John Gilmore's S/WAN project is an attempt to encrypt data transfers on the Net using readily available software. A PC running the free Unix clone called Linux can be used as a gateway on a network, encrypting those packets directed to other S/WAN-secured sites. Gilmore, in his description, refers to the "fax effect": each location implementing this system makes it more valuable for others to do so as well. Gilmore's initial goal of encrypting 5% of the Net by the end of 1996 will not be met; nonetheless, the plan has generated some low-level buzz and will likely be a hot topic in 1997.

As a stand-alone privacy method, I'm quite fond of the steganography program Stego, in part because the concept is terrific and in part because its author, Romana Machado, is one of the more interesting personalities on the Net. Steganography, or "shielded writing", is the process of embedding a text file inside of a graphics file by altering the least-significant bit of each graphic pixel. If the process is implemented properly, there is no change to the size of the graphics file: you haven't added any bytes, only altered one bit in each byte. In a sufficiently multicolored image, the slight change to each bit won't have a noticeable effect. Yes, using a binary-ascii converter first means you can encode one picture inside of another-- I've done it. Stego is a simple, elegant weapon in the struggle to retain some privacy on the Net.

Keep in mind that what may feel like a Net under assault is often actually the effect of exponential growth of Internet usage. An interesting new site that attempts to gauge Net usage (and local sluggishness) is the Internet Weather page. The site uses a weather chart analogy for its displays, which chart the packet latency to various parts of the globe. MIDS posts the results as both images and MPEG movies every four hours. The service is still quite immature; the movies don't always load properly, and a once every four hours check isn't quite sufficient for showing the pulsing changes to the Net. Nevertheless, this is probably the first of what will be a variety of services to help users try to figure out what's taking so long. In principle, this could be constructed as a streaming Java/Castanet/ActiveX application; drop a map onto your desktop that updates in real time and you have a window to the workings of the Net.

Netwar, Part Two

Let's take the opposite case: can the Net be used to inflict damage? The burgeoning Infowar industry thinks so.

The concept behind Infowar is both logical and frightening. As the West, the United States in particular, becomes increasingly dependent upon its digital information infrastructure for commercial and government functions, attacks upon that infrastructure could have a devastating effect. Furthermore, Infowarriors assert, we have not yet learned how to properly defend ourselves against these sorts of attacks, and we are extremely vulnerable to their impact.

Several websites stand out as having an interesting assortment of articles and links about information warfare. The first, the Institute for the Advanced Study of Information Warfare is a clearinghouse of IWar links. The IASIW is less official than it may seem at first, but it nonetheless has a useful set of introductory links to Infowar concepts, including a useful definition from the Naval Postgraduate School.

Similar in concept but much vaster in scope is the aptly-named Run by the evidently quite busy Winn Schwartau, the site and mailing list combination is a tremendous resource for anyone interested in information system oriented conflicts. The entry page links to a broad array of IWar categories: Hackers, Terrorism, Electronic Privacy, Electronic Civil Defense, and quite a few more. Much of the work on the site is very serious and very well-researched; unfortunately, there is sometimes a greater amount of credulity than skepticism: one of the contributions to the site seems to have fallen hook line and sinker for the Glock3 hoax.

Likely the best resource for serious students of Information Warfare issues is the document and publication archive at the RAND Corporation. The classic Cold War think tank has definitely kept up with the times. The Day After... In Cyberspace, for example, is a report on a simulation and discussion run by RAND involving both consultants and US government specialists, and is at once speculative and grounded. Coming to the conclusion that the United States is at serious risk if it were attacked with information warfare methods, the report also suggests ways to shore up defenses and new lines of research. Much of RAND's work is only available for a (often quite reasonable) fee. RAND's archive of electronic publications, however, is quite extensive, and gives a good overview of recent research on Infowar and other subjects.

The problem with the Infowar concept is that it is incredibly broad. Everything from teen hackers to Bulgarian virus writers to so-called Nonlethal weapons get tossed together into the mix. Nonetheless, our increasing dependence upon the electronic information infrastructure makes this topic one to watch closely.

Netwar, Part Three

A much more prosaic bit of warfare on the Net is the ongoing struggle over secondary and top-level domain names. If you aren't familiar with the term "domain name," just take a look at the Location: box on your browser. See the part that says That's a domain name. The "com" part is the top-level domain, and the "minds" part is the secondary domain. As you might expect, as more organizations and businesses get wired, there is increasing conflict over domain namespace. If Nissan Automotive of Japan wants, they'll have to get it from Nissan Computers of North Carolina.

One possible solution comes from the Internet International Ad Hoc Committee, formed by the Internet Society at the behest of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority. Their proposal, simply put, is to expand the number of "generic" top-level domains (such as .com, .org, and .net), and to encourage the increased use of national TLD's (.fr, .au, etc), particularly in the United States (.us). Furthermore, businesses using a national TLD would get to use a .tm in the name, to enforce the local trademark.

One important aspect of this work is that the proposal stands a fairly good chance of being adopted, but it still remains a draft. According to the IAHC calendar, the public comment period will last through January 17, 1997. Here's your chance to shape the Net of the future.

Netwar, Part Four

Of course, as with any good term, "Netwar" has a number of meanings. One of the more interesting comes from John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt of the RAND corporation. In their paper, The Advent of Netwar, they use the term to describe conflict between networked groups. From L.A. gangs to tribal warfare in Bosnia to Hamas in the Middle East, Arquilla and Ronfeldt discuss the strengths and weaknesses of panarchies and webs, and look closely at the difficulties traditional hierarchical organizations (such as States) have in combatting these groups. Control of information is critical in this sort of warfare, on and off the Net. Stewart Brand, who passed this document along to me, has a short review with excerpts. Unfortunately, the entire text is not available on the RAND site. You can order the document online, however. If you're interested in possible futures of social conflict, this is a critical-- and fairly well-written-- primer.

In other links...

I want to take a moment and plug a few interesting print magazines. The first, 21C, publishes out of Australia. A sometimes funny and usually thoughtful look at the future, with a good combination of local writers and familiar faces (such as Rudy Rucker and R.U. Sirius). It seems fairly slow to get new issues out, though.

>From Seattle comes Steelhead. Billing itself as the Handbook of the Next Northwest, Steelhead combines culture, politics, and technology into a heady mix of social critique and practical planning. This journal doesn't just survey where things are going, it tries to shape the region's future. [Full disclosure alert: I've known the editor of Steelhead for a couple of years, and I'm now listed in the masthead as "Horizon Scanner (ex officio)"]

Lastly is what is increasingly my favorite print magazine: Metropolis. Ostensibly about design, Metropolis manages to extend the concept to include everything from livable communities to human-computer interfaces. Every monthly issue has a theme, and the website adds links to additional related material. Oversized, very readable, and filled with color ads from cutting-edge industrial/home designers, Metropolis is a guide to creating worlds that are both functional and aesthetically pleasing. As you might expect from a design mag, the web site is graphically intensive and seems to expect that you have at least a 17" monitor. When somebody comes out with a laptop that has a 17" monitor, I'll be thrilled.

A Request...

The December 2, 1996 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology had a very interesting short article (p36) on "Optical Bullets". Using 110v commercial titanium-sapphire and YAG lasers, researchers at Los Alamos National Lab were able to create very high power/short duration laser filaments that seemed not to lose coherence over the tested distance. The system has only been tested indoors because of "range concerns"-- they're worried that they might hit an airplane or a satellite. The system has potential uses for remote sensing and (unsurprisingly) weaponry. The AW&ST issue is not online; if anyone has a URL to point to this research, I'd love to see more.

rafeco said:

If you're looking for something that could change the face of civilization as we know it, the spread of tropical diseases to the rest of the world (or the mutation of existing diseases to new strains that can't be treated) have a much better chance for success than a disastrous run-in with an asteroid.

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