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Is the Internet too centralized?

by on December 29, 2020

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A brief look at what happened to AT & T in Nashville

No salon again this week as we remain in low gear. However our next salon, to be held Tuesday January 5th 2021 at 1pm (Eastern) is not be missed. It will feature the brilliant Robin Shaban, and look at the political economy of competition law. Normally a dry subject, but Robin brings it to life and makes it accessible, which is especially important and relevant given all the antitrust action going on. Mark it in your calendar and join us!

The Internet was designed to be a decentralized communications network that could survive a catastrophic event such as a nuclear attack. In doing away with a centre, a network of networks could be resilient enough to manage if not transcend an isolated incident or a key node going offline.

At least that was the intent, and presently an aspiration? Turns out the Internet is not as decentralized as we thought.

I tend to avoid writing about breaking news, especially when the information about the story is constantly changing. I also try to write issues the day before so I can schedule them to go out at 7am. In this case I couldn’t do that, as the information regarding the recent terrorist attack in Nashville Tennessee is still emerging.

Just by calling it a terrorist act, we diverge from the current legacy media narrative, although social media is also using the “t” word to describe this event.

Yet I want to draw your attention to the target of the attack. The AT&T transmission office that the RV was parked in front of.

It turns out that this building housed essential telecom infrastructure. In successfully attacking the building, Internet and cell connectivity was cut or significantly disturbed across several US states. This included 911 access as well as communications at Nashville’s airport.

While the motives and philosophy of the attacker remains an area of speculation, what we do know is that the impact of the attack on communications networks was significant. As far as terror attacks go, while this appeared to deliberately avoid harming others, it should be considered one of the most successful (domestic) terror attacks in (recent) US history.

Similarly I’d imagine (or hope) that US security and intelligence officials are now rethinking the status and vulnerability of other transmission offices across the country. Telecom executives should also be reassessing their redundancy plans to ensure they’re prepared for any contingency.

I followed some of the discussion of this event on the NANOG (North American Network Operators Group) and the comments on this Hacker News post are also interesting.

Unfortunately there hasn’t been a lot of analysis of the technical or telecom impacts of this attack, as the attention remains focused on whodunit and why. Of course that’s reasonable, and understandable, but also lends itself to rampant speculation.

It’s difficult in such circumstances to decipher what to believe, although the narrative about 5G and conspiracy is sure to stick (and grow).

Steve Fridrich, a realtor who contacted the FBI after hearing the man’s name on a news bulletin, told WSMV that federal agents had asked him if Warner had a paranoia about 5G technology.

Promoted by the rightwing cult movement QAnon, among others, the conspiracy theory makes wild claims about 5G, the next generation technology that delivers high speed internet access to mobile phone networks. As well as believing 5G is a spying tool of the deep state, theorists claim the technology causes cancer and helps spread coronavirus.

Research by The Tennessean newspaper, meanwhile, revealed that Warner registered as the owner of the business Custom Alarms and Electronics in 1993, and was involved in a recently settled legal dispute with his family over property ownership.

“[He was] kind of low key to the point of, I don’t know, I guess some people would say he’s a little odd. He was kind of a computer geek that worked at home,” Warner’s next-door neighbor, Steve Schmoldt, told the newspaper.

Earlier on Sunday, the mayor of Nashville appeared to indicate that the 5G conspiracy theory could be relevant to the investigation. “To all of us locally, it feels like there has to be some connection with the AT&T facility and the site of the bombing,” John Cooper said on CBS’ Face the Nation. “That’s just local insight, because it’s got to have something to do with the infrastructure.”

This is obviously disturbing, not just because of the violence, not just because of the ludicrous conspiracy theory, but due to the effectiveness of the attack.

ISIS was (and to a lesser extent still is) powerful because of their decentralized structure and the ease by which they could stage terror attacks. However their attacks were not always effective, beyond their primary purpose of symbolic (and horrific) violence.

The danger in this instance is the potential for an effective campaign of “domestic” terrorists who target communications infrastructure.

The widespread embrace of conspiracy and disinformation amounts to a “mass radicalization” of Americans, and increases the risk of right-wing violence, veteran security officials and terrorism researchers warn.

At conferences, in op-eds and at agency meetings, domestic terrorism analysts are raising concern about the security implications of millions of conservatives buying into baseless right-wing claims. They say the line between mainstream and fringe is vanishing, with conspiracy-minded Republicans now marching alongside armed extremists at rallies across the country. Disparate factions on the right are coalescing into one side, analysts say, self-proclaimed “real Americans” who are cocooned in their own news outlets, their own social media networks and, ultimately, their own “truth.”

“This tent that used to be sort of ‘far-right extremists’ has gotten a lot broader. To me, a former counterterrorism official, that’s a radicalization process,” said Mary McCord, a former federal prosecutor who oversaw terrorism cases and who’s now a law professor at Georgetown University.

McCord was speaking at a recent online conference, Millions of Conversations, an organization aimed at reducing polarization. Along with McCord, several other former officials who served in senior national security roles said the mass embrace of bogus information poses a serious national security concern for the incoming Biden administration.

While the consequence of terrorism generally involves the loss of civil liberties or the strengthening of the surveillance state, we should be concerned that in this coming wave, the consequence could be the loss of the Internet as we know it.

A reasonable and rational response to these attacks would be to further embrace decentralized protocols, technologies, and network design. Double down on the promise of the Internet as an incubator for democracy and a resilient communications infrastructure that can survive any and all attacks.

Yet it’s also reasonable to anticipate and expect the opposite. Further centralization, surveillance and control. Especially given that the emerging insurgency, the far-right extremists, are employing the tools of decentralization to mobilize and deploy their forces.

Perhaps it’s like the debate around free speech, but with greater stakes. With free speech, you have to recognize that such a right belongs to people who’s speech you despise.

Are open and decentralized networks so essential to the future of democracy that we have to recognize their potential to be used against us (i.e. the democracy itself)? Is it possible to reaffirm our commitment to such networks while also finding ways to both preserve them and counter/oppose/neutralize violent extremists?

Questions we will explore moving forward. #metaviews

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