Why NSA's Betrayal Of Internet Security Is Akin To A Massive Public Health Disaster

from the infectious-ideas dept

One of the most shocking of Snowden’s revelations was that the NSA and GCHQ are deliberately weakening the Internet’s security — either by undermining standards, or by using zero-day vulnerabilities to break into systems. More recent news about the huge scale of attempts to infect computers with malware only compounds that outrage. It’s hard to convey to ordinary Internet users the seriousness of what the NSA and GCHQ have done here, but in a brilliant new column in the Guardian, it looks like Cory Doctorow has done just that:

I think there’s a good case to be made for security as an exercise in public health. It sounds weird at first, but the parallels are fascinating and deep and instructive.

Here’s the basic insight:

If you discovered that your government was hoarding information about water-borne parasites instead of trying to eradicate them; if you discovered that they were more interested in weaponising typhus than they were in curing it, you would demand that your government treat your water-supply with the gravitas and seriousness that it is due.

Because that is precisely what the spying agencies are doing: they are intentionally withholding vital information about threats to your digital health — the fact that programs you use are vulnerable to infections with malware, or that key security technologies you depend upon have backdoors — regardless of the serious consequences this might have for you. If you try to imagine doctors doing the same in the case of equivalent threats to your health, you begin to get an idea of the depth of betrayal felt by computer professionals here. Doctorow goes on to point out that this is not just a matter of personal harm; the NSA and GCHQ are degrading the basic digital infrastructure of modern life:

This is the most alarming part of the Snowden revelations: not just that spies are spying on all of us — that they are actively sabotaging all of our technical infrastructure to ensure that they can continue to spy on us.

There is no way to weaken security in a way that makes it possible to spy on “bad guys” without making all of us vulnerable to bad guys, too. The goal of national security is totally incompatible with the tactic of weakening the nation’s information security.

“Virus” has been a term of art in the security world for decades, and with good reason. It’s a term that resonates with people, even people with only a cursory grasp of technology. As we strive to make the public and our elected representatives understand what’s at stake, let’s expand that pathogen/epidemiology metaphor. We’d never allow MI5 to suppress information on curing typhus so they could attack terrorists by infecting them with it. We need to stop allowing the NSA and GCHQ to suppress information on fixing bugs in our computers, phones, cars, houses, planes, and bodies.

Doctorow is right on both counts: we can’t allow the NSA and GCHQ to withhold vital information that endangers the digital fabric of society, and the way to stop them is to use this public health metaphor to get that message across to politicians and the general public.

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Comments on “Why NSA's Betrayal Of Internet Security Is Akin To A Massive Public Health Disaster”

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Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Beat me to it. This analogy (along with your biological comparison) is insanely appropriate. Although we do know they keep even “eradicated” pathogens stocked for future… “Uses”.

Which points us to the sad fact that while everybody would be up in arms seeking blood of the Govt if it was about health nobody seems to grasp how critical the problem is when it moves to the digital realm. You know, when “on the Internet” is added and everything becomes black magic.

Anonymous Coward says:

The analogy also raises another depressing thought: if our “constitutional” governments undermine the public health of our internet infrastructure because, terrorism, what’s to prevent them from undermining our biological public health because, terrorism? Remember that the US government caught Osama bin Laden, in part, through a fake vaccination drive (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-cia-fake-vaccination-campaign-endangers-us-all/). Previous to the NSA revelations, I would have viewed such a thought as paranoia and conspiracy. Now…

madasahatter (profile) says:


The analogy to typhus or cholera is apt. The spooks do not realize that destroying the web by spreading virus, worms, etc. will rebound on them. First, systems that are shutdown or isolated by definition are unavailable for these vectors. Secondly, like the biological diseases, these could infect your own systems. Third, an alert person might spot the infection, neutralize, and modify it to attack you much like the biological infections gain immunity, evolve.

observer says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

While the post you’re replying to is a tad extreme, it’s hardly a tinfoil hat scenario. Tinfoil hat wearers are typically concerned about something that doesn’t and often can’t possibly exist, whereas there’s hard evidence that the NSA et al have been compromising the security of the internet for their own ends.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

The level of spying being carried out is a dictators dream. It puts in place the system that they would need to try and control the population at at thought police level. All it it needs is the excuse for a dictator to take over. An extreme authoritarian president places a few of his cronies and supporter in key positions and ……

Urgelt (profile) says:


Releasing malware onto the internet is explicitly illegal. So why isn’t the Justice Department prosecuting those who do it?

The answer is obvious. We are no longer a law-governed democracy. Government can do whatever it wishes – assassinate citizens and foreign persons (far from any battlefield), torture, incarcerate with no due process for as long as government wishes, spy on Americans, and infect hundreds of thousands of computers (with more intended) with malware. These are all symptoms of an authoritarian state, which is rule by fiat, not rule of law. And citizens ‘have no standing’ to challenge government’s illegal actions.

This is a sad day in America.

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