How cybersecurity is like Star Trek's transporter

We haven't quite figured out, even 200 hundred years after the time of Ben Franklin, how to reconcile our need for security with our need for freedom.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

I want you to imagine for a moment that some bright young thing actually managed to invent a working transporter -- like the ones they have in Star Trek. Using it, you can beam from one spot on the planet to another in just a few seconds.

Now, imagine Walmart got into the act, and you could buy one of these transporters for three hundred bucks or so. Everyone would buy one. We'd beam to work. We'd beam across the country for really good Hungarian food. We'd beam down to Cancun for a dip in the ocean. And we'd beam into each others' houses, mostly just to say "Hi".

After a few years, though, the dropping in to say "Hi" thing would get old. Some of our friends just wouldn't respect our requests that they call first.

Worse, bad guys start picking up on the opportunities offered by instantly beaming in and beaming out. More and more people would be sitting on their couches, cooking in their kitchens, or standing in their showers, minding their own business -- as thieves beam in, steal valuables, and beam out.

Some people would protect their homes, erecting Faraday cages around their homes. Faraday cages block the transporter signals, but they're not cheap or easy to set up. Over time, some of the more upscale homes and offices are actually built with Faraday grids in the walls.

But most people, businesses, and even government agencies don't have Faraday cages to protect against transporting marauders.

More sophisticated criminals beam into offices and hide, sometimes staying there for days, stealing plans, access codes, and product information. Terrorist groups get into the act. At first, they try electrical power stations, but those are pretty well guarded. But old pumping stations, bridge caisons, and other less well-protected (but no less important) infrastructure elements are rapidly compromised by the terrorists. Planting a bomb is absurdly easy if you can simply beam in and beam out.

National governments get into the game. When one nation can't convince another nation to do something like, say, stop making nuclear weapons, it's easy enough to just beam in and break things up from inside. It's also easy for other nations to beam into government offices, military bases, and even inside aircraft and steal information, plant wrong information, or even fiddle with the controls of a flying vehicle.

Some people don't believe there's a problem. No one has ever beamed in on them while they're doing the nasty with their spouse, so they just don't believe it's a problem.

Many people have had their lives transformed by transporter technology. Doors have opened that were never before possible, and they're unwilling to have transporter technology regulated, just because there might be some rogue beamers out there.

Others are concerned about government intrusion. If Marge down the street can beam in when she wants a cup of sugar, couldn't a government goon beam in just because a tax return wasn't signed?

These are all valid points, but there are still bad guys out there, beaming into peoples' homes, stealing their life savings (and their stuffed animals), and beaming out. There are still bad guys out there, beaming into railroad switching facilities, and sending the train going east directly into the path of the train going west. And there are still bad guys out there, beaming into government armories, and stealing surface to air missiles that they can then sell to other bad guys, who fire them at our passenger jets.

At this point, it's too late to stop the sale of transporters. Millions of people own them. It's also hard to make laws, because a law in America won't stop, say, Russia, from beaming some Spetsnaz commandos into an American office building and stealing plans for products that cost billions of dollars to design.

But something must be done. Some government-level control must be put into place because Americans are at risk.

By now, you've probably picked up on the analogy. The transporter is like our digital technology. While Russians aren't beaming commandos into our laboratories, countries like Russia and China are penetrating our computer networks. Terrorists are attacking our companies online. Criminals are stealing the life savings of regular American citizens.

Last week, President Obama wrote an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal, describing the risk of cyberattack and why he thinks the newest draft of the Senate Cybersecurity Act of 2012 is worth passing.

See also: Obama: Cyber attack serious threat to economy, national security

By almost all accounts, this bill is far less heinous than previous drafts. This bill recognizes the basic rights of privacy Americans have been guaranteed since the Bill of Rights was ratified on a cold and blustery December 15th, back in 1791.

It's a better bill, because it no longer mandates (i.e., forces) businesses to implement costly and probably impractical cyberdefense strategies. It's a worse bill, because it no longer mandates (i.e., forces) businesses to implement defensive and absolutely critical cyberdefense strategies.

It's not a bad bill, and it probably should be passed into law. It's also not a good bill. It can't be, because we don't really have a good way to protect our citizens and our interests from the global threats of cyberattack, cybercrime, and cyberespionage. We also haven't quite figured out, even 200 hundred years after the time of Ben Franklin, how to reconcile our need for security with our need for freedom.

But this bill is a start. We'll need to make a number of forays into both legal and technical solutions to the problems and profound opportunities presented by the modern Internet.

A lot more needs to be done, and what we really need is a comprehensive, centralized approach to how we defend our nation. It also wouldn't hurt to have Montgomery Scott on our side.

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