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Internet unregulated, vulnerable to attack, McLaughlin says in lecture

It can be hard to know what to believe on the Internet.

Andrew McLaughlin, former Deputy Chief of Technology Officer for the Obama Administration, gave the first lecture in a series hosted by the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law (CDDRL).

In the talk, he outlined several vulnerabilities of the infrastructure of the Internet and the difficulties in overcoming them.

“There are three particular global infrastructure security issues,” McLaughlin said. “What they all have in common is that they present a model of diffuse, decentralized responsibility and broad coordination and implementation where essentially nobody is in charge.”

The first problem he outlined is the issue of the “name server,” part of the system that tells your browser where to go when you type in an Internet address.

“If someone can get between you and one of the name servers and act like one of the name servers, they can send back responses that your computer will trust but that are false,” McLaughlin said. “So they can send you to something that they’ve set up that looks like Gmail, and when you type your password into [it], they have your password.”

Surprisingly, acting as a name server is remarkably easy to accomplish. The conversation between you and the “name server” is often “in plain text out over the Internet.”

“This protocol was built for the Internet when security was just not a big consideration,” McLaughlin continued. “The Internet was just a network of universities linked together, trusting each other, basically.”

The trust inherent in the Internet architecture is apparent in the “trust -based” communications between ISPs as well. Different ISPs are responsible for different IP addresses. To locate specific sites, ISPs around the world announce which IP addresses they have using “route announcements.”

The problem is that these announcements are not verified by anyone. It is up to the ISPs to do it correctly, which can lead to problems. In 2006 a small Pakistani ISP “announced” YouTube, accidentally shutting down both YouTube and the Internet in Pakistan.

In more sinister hands, this weakness can be exploited to selectively turn websites off.

“There was an incident in 2009 where China Telecommunications Corporation (China Telecom) suddenly started announcing about 15 percent of the world’s routes which they were not, in fact, responsible for,” McLaughlin said. “China Telecom has now been sort of caught red-handed both hijacking routes on a temporary basis and also occasionally spoofing certificate authorities.”

McLaughlin believes this may have been a test to see if China was capable of quickly turning off portions of the Internet and replacing them with fake sites. China would be able to spy on people around the world with this capability.

The third weakness in Internet authentication has been used to gather information about citizens of Iran. The system that browsers use to verify that websites are authentic–that the site is who or what it claims to be–often have built-in authorities designating acceptable certificates.

When you go to a website and your browser warns you about visiting, it is relying on this system of authenticating. However there is little oversight of these authorities, and nobody has a clear mandate to oversee them.

One such authority, a Dutch company, was hacked recently. The hacker was able to issue a certificate for Google, meaning they could impersonate Google and look at people’s personal information. The target of the attack was mainly people in Iran, and the attacker left the message, “I will sacrifice my soul for my leader” in Farsi.

While these issues are widely recognized, the solutions are complex. One problem is the issue of sovereignty. A group of concerned experts has come up with a solution to the issue of “name servers,” but nobody has the authority to implement it.

“Imagine you’re Kenya and you are being told anything that is not signed off on, on an operational level, by this California organization, is not going to exist as far as the Internet is concerned,” McLaughlin said. “Who are these people? How were they chosen?”

For Stanford students in attendance, McLaughlin’s talk was both sobering and suggested opportunities for students.

“I think cyberlaw is going to be the most interesting form of law in the future,” said Marcheta Marshall ’14. “How do you put laws around the Internet?”

Former Deputy Chief Technology Officer for the White House Andrew McLaughlin gives a lecture in Wallenberg Theater on Thursday about the difficulties associated with gathering international support to secure the Internet. (MICHAEL KHEIR/The Stanford Daily)