In a talk given at Stanford Law School on Tuesday, Harvard Professor of Law and Computer Science Jonathan Zittrain expressed concern both over the Internet being too consolidated and controlled, as well as concern about security issues highlighted by “hacktivism” in 2011.
The event, ‘Hacktivism: Anonymous, Lulzsec and Cybercrime in 2012 and Beyond,’ was sponsored by CodeX: The Stanford Center for Legal Informatics. CodeX is a multidisciplinary laboratory run by the University that seeks “to explore ways in which information technology can be used to enhance the quality and efficiency of our legal system while decreasing its cost,” according to its website.
Zittrain, co-founder and co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard, has often concerned himself with potentially harmful censorship and limits to freedom on the Internet, but in this talk, focused on one major drawback: major security concerns that are often beyond the skill level of the general public to comprehend and address.
“About a year ago it dawned on me that our information environment is one in which, if you anger the wrong people, your entire life is vulnerable,” Zittrain said. “That is a high cost to pay for security, and it carries certain drawbacks that we shouldn’t have to entertain.”
Zittrain described fears over the worst-case scenario cyber attacks getting the bulk of public attention — like an attack that disables the power grid or interferes with a nuclear plant. He addressed such scenarios as real, but the product of “hype.”
Instead he singled out attacks like distributed denial of service attacks (DDoS), which were at the center of many important news stories in 2011, including attacks on governments in the Middle East and on companies that had severed ties with WikiLeaks.
Zittrain related how Anonymous, a loose Internet group known for activist hacking, retaliated against HB Gary Federal, an Internet security consulting firm, and its CEO Aaron Barr. Aaron Barr had his Twitter and Facebook hacked to announce his home address and social security number. Additionally, all of the internal company emails were hacked and released.
Ultimately, Anonymous itself was compromised and forced to announce: “We regret to inform you today that our network has been compromised by a former IRC-operator and fellow helper named ‘Ryan.’”
“I don’t know if you’ve seen Reservoir Dogs where everybody is pointing their guns at each other,” Zittrain said. “But this is where I say ‘things have gone too far.’”
Everybody is vulnerable in this environment, including expert consultants in cyber security, according to Zittrain.
“This box in front of me [pointing at his laptop] contains all of my emails on it, and if Anonymous were mad enough at me, I have every confidence that they would be in this box within 12 hours,” Zittrain said. “Maybe if I broke it over my knee and never plugged it in again…” he joked.
Zittrain did not offer any specific solutions to the balance, but he favors a solution that would be “bottom up” in nature, not a government-driven solution. He looks to models like Wikipedia for bottom-up governance that works. Zittrain acknowledged that any solution would have to work with the nature of the consumers.
“How do we build systems that are still extremely simple and intuitive to use, but capture experimentalist spirit that was so important to the development of the Internet?” Zittrain asked.
Zittrain will not have to come up with all of the answers himself, as students in a Law class called ‘Ideas for A Better Internet’ attended the event. The class has students from both Stanford and Harvard who will be presenting their work in an event on Wed., Jan. 18.
Eli Marschner, a second-year graduate student in computer science, is working on the issues related to journalism on the Internet. He came away from this talk pondering the differences between online activism and traditional activism.
“With online civil disobedience, if you want to call it that, it is not highly organized groups who are dedicating their time and risking being arrested,” Marschner said. “It might be somebody in their basement running downloaded software their friend told them to download. The scale is fundamentally different.”
Contact Josh at firstname.lastname@example.org.