Fighting the Web

The Pentagon’s stated intention of gaining control of the internet and comprehensive control of the larger EM-spectrum, while perfectly logical and maybe desirable (in a Clausewitz sort of way,) is never going to work. This story is not exactly getting major air time in the U.S. as far as I can tell (which isn’t much) but I found a mention of it here and here’s an article from the Sunday Herald.

It’s incredibly ambitious to plan this sort of thing, which goes far, far beyond mere national security. And knowing the way the highest levels of the military make plans, they most likely will attempt to implement this in some fashion in the near future (next decade? before 2010?) I merely don’t think they realize the scope of what the job entails (if they did, they’d have allocated billions of dollars to it, not a lousy $300 million). The truth is that the world has more tech-savvy nerds, freaks, geeks, and weirdos than the U.S. military and all of them would be highly motivated to punch any holes they could find in this attempt to dominate the world’s communication routes. And as one fellow I know who has worked with the military pointed out to me, those guys can barely manage their budgets, and the only reason ARPANet is still alive is because it went public (arguable, perhaps, but the point is an excellent one.) Big ideas and big plans that are brilliant in scope and unworkable in real life is the hallmark of the current Pentagon staff.

Even Larry Niven in the afterword to Fallen Angels allowed that
the military couldn’t realistically compete with a country full of
die-hard science fiction fans when it came to imposing absolute rule on
anything–and that novel describes a a United States where scarce
resources and tightly controlled technology has driven the nerds
underground. In real life? Forget it. Sci-Fi fans are a small subset of the nerd population, making the idea of absolute control even sillier.

Here’s my thinking (flawed and ignorant though it may be): let’s say
they put this plan into operation sometime in 2007, after carefully
logging all IP addresses they want to sieze (and there would logically
be billions of them, to include all wireless connections, Bluetooth and
otherwise, land lines, satellite connections, routers, hubs, ISP
centers, etc.) and prioritizing their list. Total control of the
routers wouldn’t make sense, as they’d have to centralize the routing
of data packets everywhere, which means they’d have to totally redesign
the internet’s packet switching routines, which they don’t want to do. It makes more sense for them
to pick a few choice targets–say, the ISPs who service enemy nations (Iraq, Iran, France, etc.),
or cities (or even neighborhoods) where terrorists might be  working on
plans for a local attack.   (I’m not even going to address how, just
assume that they can and do.)

They track down one potential guy
because the Carnivore/Echelon email intercept system flags a particular
hit on a particular server that contains a particular code worde or phrase. The information is useless unless and until
a human being actually does something to follow it up, say, dispatching a
SWAT team to the guy’s apartment (or place of business or house of
worship.) Technically that can work, if there are sufficient police and
military resources to spend on it. But it’s one thing to track and
round up one potential terrorists. It’s another to do so to thousands;
if current DOH activities are any indication, several thousand
potential targets have been detained by the U.S. government and for that we
have exactly one trial in progress and no convictions. If all you want to do is
make people disappear, you don’t need a fancy EM-control system in

The opposite is true as well: let’s say that the Pentagon cuts
the switch on half of Saudi Arabia due to suspicious traffic the NSA
has detected running around the globe. Now there needs to be some kind of follow-up action in real life, not just on the web (unless the Pentagon considers flooding with pro-American propoganda as a real life follow up, and they might, I don’t know.) Invade Saudi Arabia? With what? Most of our soldiers are still bogged down in Iraq, and if Iran is due for invasion next, it’ll get worse as those same troops will be asked to cover a lot more territory. And there are hackers and nerds in Saudi Arabia, too (if there are computers there, there are hackers, trust me on that.)

The point is this: if you wish to flood the internet  with propaganda, you can’t darken the target area completely, or your message won’t get to your audience, and your own mail won’t get to your friendly stations. If you leave the system on, it can be cracked by someone (or many someones) motivated enough to do so. It’s just a matter of time.

So, here’s how it might go down: Hassan the Saudi Terrorist is in NYC passing email to
other terrorists, and since he’s on a military watch list already, they
flick a switch and Hassan’s MSN account goes down. There would have to
be military police (or local cops) ready and waiting to pick up Hassan
at the spot, no matter where he was. Or they could flick a switch, kill
the access of everyone in Hassan’s neighborhood, but then they’d still
have to follow up with some kind of physical response, or Hassan will
get spooked, go elsewhere and find another laptop to use. Maybe he goes
to the library just to get the word out that he’s being tagged and he’s
dropping out of sight for a while. Fine, they find him again, and flick
another switch and kill the access at the public library he’s using.
But he’s gone from the library by the time the MPs find the flag that
Carnivore/Echelon sent when it detected his MSN account
signature coming from the ISP’s mail server.

Hassan, having successfully evaded police, uses forged documents to
get home to Saudi Arabia The military, having laid these plans long
ago, flips a whole battery of switches and kills all ISP access within the
country and then flips another battery of switches killing every router
on the planet that services Saudi data net. That means that
plenty of private data network companies (including Electronic Data Services, which was a division of General Motors last time I checked) are going to be mightily
pissed.  The U.S. government assures them it’s temporary, and there are
few disruptions even though a significant percentage of American data
traffic passes through that part of the world, as that’s how the
internet works–bits and pieces are flying everywhere over hundreds of millins of PCs every second. Still, those routers are not physically disabled
(unless the U.S. up and invaded Saudi Arabia in the hopes of finding
Hassan), they’re merely being controlled from the outside. Which means they’re still on and ripe for harvesting by someone suitably motivated.

Some teenager in Riyadh who’s not a terrorist and harbors no
intent to become one nonetheless has been chatting with Hassan on IM
for some time, now. And he knows that both he and Hassan live in a country that is
essentially the subject of a giant denial of service attack from Uncle
Sam. He talks to a few of his friends, and they talk to some of their
fiends, and they imagine how to get inside the Pentagon’s computers,
with a combination of viruses, DOS attacks of their own, the works.
They don’t lift the internet ban on Saudi Arabia but they do manage to
gum up the works badly enough that the Pentagon decides to flip yet
more switches the deny services to Dubai (where some very rich and extremely powerful people intimately connected tot he U.S. government live), Morocco, Iran, and
strangely enough, Tokyo, Shanghai, Berlin, Paris, NYC and Houston,
Texas (Houston???).

More nerds in France, Germany, and Japan, who are also very much intertested in
defending their electronic borders (and who are still pissed at
America’s disrupting their IM traffic), decide that
they’re going to announce their displeasure with American military
policy by coming up with something really wacky: a virus the deletes the
stored entries in cell phones, which bascially fly out into the EM
spectrum and attack cell phones more or less randomly, including a
number inside the U.S.

The Pentagon escalates: they flip more switches and Cingular,
Verizon Wireless and Nextel go dark, followed by a national security warning that alerts Americans that cell phone use is being disrupted by terrorist cells. Millions of American cell phone
users (not to mention the wireless companies who provide services to
them) are outraged, and take to the streets, forcing a number of
American cities to call out the bulk of their police for riot control.

Hassan’s friend (and co-conspirator), Ahmed, (still in NYC) sees
that all the police have gone to deal with the rioters and decides to
take matters into his own hands. After all, Hassan is either in
American hands (and being horribly tortured, since that’s what
Americans do to Arabs, al-Jazeera–not that BS stuff the U.S. military floods the internet with,  the real al-Jazeera– says so) or will be shortly, and the
operation is nearly finished.  The orignal plan called to load up a van
with one thousand pounds of fertilizer, which they don’t have–but he
does have four hundred pounds, which will have to do. While the NYPD
is dealing with rioters in Times Square, Hassan packs up the van,
drives it uptown into the lobby of the Citicorp building and blows it
and himself, and twenty other folks to kingdom come: mission accomplished.

And that’s if the whole shebang actually works as advertised. The Strategic Defense Initiative is nearly 30 years old and still doesn’t work as advertised.

Yes, it’s a silly scenario, and more illustrative than realistic, but you get
my point. Even if it "works," it’s not going to work. If they want it to work, they’ll
have round up every nerd on the planet. There aren’t enough Americans,
much less American soldiers, to pull that off.

About Jon Frater

A gaming industry stalwart dating back to the 1980s, Jonathan Frater is the co-author of roleplaying game books Robotech: Return of the Masters, and Robotech Adventures: Lancer's Rockers, both for Palladium Books. Jonathan also wrote a column on writing and game design called The Tome in Gateways magazine. He's currently a librarian at Metropolitan College of New York. Article 9, the first in his ambitious Blockade Trilogy, is Jonathan's first full-length novel.

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