The Big Red Button and the Kill Switch

by Marcus J. Ranum
April 25, 2013

I have no idea if I had a role in the "Internet Kill Switch" debacle, but it's possible that I was one of the pushes that got that particularly horrible ball rolling. Back in 2002, when I was between jobs, I did a talk at CSI in Chicago, about the need for organizations to be better able to react to attack, especially if they were part of critical infrastructure. At the time, I was concerned particularly with denial of service attacks; I had been thinking about them and had concluded that it's never going to be possible to completely prevent such attacks. "Well, that has big implications for anyone who wants to rely on public networks," I thought.

It's one thing if we're talking about a web retailer - it's their business model that's at stake. It's another thing if it's a system with high reliability requirements such as smartgrid systems, chemical plant control systems, etc. I don't need to care if Amazon or eBay is down, but I do care if my power goes off because someone gambled on my behalf that they could get cheaper bandwidth by tunnelling over the Internet, and lost.

My talk concluded with what I thought was a pretty good (I still do) - the idea of "The Big Red Button" - that an organization deemed critical infrastructure or dangerous if interfered with, had to have the ability to operate standalone, and to test that ability on a regular basis. You have to remember that this was 2000, and the "cyberwar" drums were beating furiously. There were a lot of wild conjectures being made publicly about enemy powers crashing electric grids, etc. So, the idea would be that, if a country was attacked, The President (or whomever) would tell all the organizations that had been flagged as critical to push the Big Red Button and operate offline for a while until the attack was over.

The other piece of my proposal was that organizations flagged as critical would have to periodically test to see if they actually could function in the absence of the Internet. Do organizations that are running critical systems do a good enough job of taking into account whether their systems will continue to function without patches, or without being able to check with Internet-based licensing systems? You can't really say that you know you can survive without the Internet, unless you try it every so often!

From an electronic government standpoint, The Big Red Button also means maintaining some system capability for operating in a reduced mode during an attack. As we saw during the Estonia cyberattacks, a government that is too online can be taken offline. I don't mind if the Internal Revenue Service is offlined for awhile, but what about Social Security? These are serious questions and I am concerned that in the rush to embrace Internet, some bad judgement calls may be being made.

Fast-forward a couple years and I hear about the Internet Kill Switch and it doesn't sound anything like my idea, so it takes a while to sink in. Is it? I don't know. I hope not. But I've had a couple journalists ask me, "what do you think of the Internet Kill Switch idea?" and suddenly I'm being all dodgy and saying, "I really don't know... It sounds like it could be a good idea, if it was implemented right - but it almost certainly won't be." Meanwhile, is anyone confident that we would be able to respond in a coordinated and effective way, if we were attacked in a coordinated and effective way?

mjr.