Black Hat 2015

Black Hat: Hackers urged to protect Internet freedom

Laws are needed to protect the ‘freedom to tinker’ with Internet devices and software

Rule 5: Give Developers Freedom With Controls Credit: Shutterstock

Las Vegas -- Security researchers need to fight for the rights to study, modify and reverse engineer Internet hardware and software or the general population risks losing Internet freedom, the Black Hat 2015 conference was told.

jennifer granick

Jennifer Granick

“The dream of Internet freedom is dying,” warned Jennifer Granick, the Director of Civil Liberties at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society during the conference keynote. Four things are killing it: centralization, regulation, globalization and loss of “the freedom to tinker,” she says.

It sounds like hobbyists at play but the freedom to tinker enables people to dismantle and reverse engineer the hardware and software that runs the Internet – the bread and butter of Black Hat attendees. But with laws that forbid purchasers of software from tearing it down to see how it works, eventually people have access to that information.

She cited the case 10 years ago when researcher Michael Lynn quit his job to give a talk at Black Hat that Cisco and his then-employer ISS wanted to squelch. He was sued with the companies making the claim that the software he was examining was theirs, “and we will tell you what you can do and no more,” she says.

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The issue was settled out of court but the laws haven’t changed to protect this type of research, she says. The message is, “You need our permission to operate in this world. If we don’t like what you’re doing or if we don’t like you, this law is vague enough for us to come after you.” The laws, she says, need to change.

Researchers are needed to bring about changes that improve security and ensure better software, not attacked for doing their work, she says, and they need to take a more active role in making that happen.

Centralization, such as that caused by much of the Internet backbone being provided by a limited number of large providers, means chokepoints exist where large streams of data flow through. That means good things like centralized security to stop spam and cut off distributed denial-of-service attacks, but also places where governments can gather data. The renewed governmental attempts for encryption backdoors in backbone-provider networks is one example of the downside of this centralization, she says.

Regulations need to be rethought giving more weight to privacy and free speech and in the U.S., Congress needs to readjust the balance between the government’s need to defend the country and personal privacy and free speech, she says. One promise of the Internet was freely available information and the ability for anyone to contact anyone else and share information, she says.

But with globalization of the Internet, more and more countries are able to impose their own regulations that affect everyone. Some of these countries don’t have freedom of speech or even the rule of law, yet they will have an influence on how the Internet is used and regulated, she says. Where one country might seek surveillance of Internet to catch terrorists, another might use it to prevent dissent and undermine the work of journalists.

These decisions will be made by the powerful who will decide who gets Internet security and who doesn’t.

She says she once viewed the Internet as a place where age, race and gender wouldn’t be a factor, but she’s found that discrimination in all these areas has successfully transferred to the digital realm.

This story, "Black Hat: Hackers urged to protect Internet freedom" was originally published by Network World.

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