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June 11, 2021

The fragility of strangers

Colonial_Pipeline_System.pngThis week, someone you've never met changed the configuration settings on their individual account with a company you've never heard of and knocked out 85% of that company's network. Dumb stuff like this probably happens all the time without attracting attention, but in this case the company, Fastly. is a cloud provider that also runs an intermediary content delivery network intended to speed up Internet connections. Result: people all over the world were unable to reach myriad major Internet sites such as Amazon, Twitter, Reddit, and the Guardian for about an hour.

The proximate cause of these outages, Fastly has now told the world, was a bug that was introduced (note lack of agency) into its software code in mid-May, which laid dormant until someone did something completely normal to trigger it.

In the early days, we all assumed that as more companies came onstream and admins built experience and expertise, this sort of thing would happen less and less. But as the mad complexity of our computer systems and networks continues to increase - Internet of Things! AI! - now it's more likely that stuff like this will also increase, will be harder to debug, and will cause far more ancillary damage - and that damage will not be limited to the virtual world. A single random human, accidentally or intentionally, is now capable of creating physical-world damage at scale.

Ransomware attacks earlier this month illustrate this. Attackers' use of a single leaked password linked to a disused VPN account in the systems that run the Colonial Pipeline compromised gasoline supplies down a large swathe of the US east coast. Near-simultaneously, a ransomware attack on the world's largest meatpacker, JBS, briefly halted production, threatening food security in North America and Australia. In December, an attack on network management software supplied by the previously little-known SolarWinds compromised more than 18,000 companies and government agencies. In all these cases, random strangers reached out across the world and affected millions of personal lives by leveraging a vulnerability inside a company that is not widely known but that provides crucial services to companies we do know and use every day.

An ordinary person just trying to live their life has no defense except to have backups of everything - not just data, but service providers and suppliers. Most people either can't afford that or don't have access to alternatives, which means that precarious lives are made even more so by hidden vulnerabilities they can't assess.

An earlier example: in 2012, journalist Matt Honan's data was entirely wiped out through an attack that leveraged quirks of two unrelated services - Apple and Amazon - against each other to seize control of his email address and delete all his data. Moral: data "in the cloud" is not a backup, even if the hosting company says they keep backups. Second moral: if there is a vulnerability, someone will find it, sometimes for motives you would never guess.

If memory serves, Akamai, founded in 1998, was the first CDN. The idea was that even though the Internet means the death of distance, physics matters. Michael Lewis captured this principle in detail in his book Flash Boys, in which a handful of Wall Street types pay extraordinary amounts to shave a few split-seconds off the time it takes to make a trade by using a ruler and map to send fiber topic cables along the shortest possible route between exchanges. Just so, CDNs cache frequently accessed content on mirror servers around the world. When you call up one of those pages, it, or frequently-used parts of it in the case of dynamically assembled pages, is served up from the nearest of those servers, rather than from the distant originator. By now, there are dozens of these networks and what they do has vastly increased in sophistication, just as the web itself has. A really major outlet like Amazon will have contracts with more than one, but apparently switching from one to the other isn't always easy, and because so many outages are very short it's often easier to wait it out. Not in this case!

At The Conversation, criminology professor David Wall also sees this outage as a sign of the future for the same reason I do: centralization and consolidation have shrunk, and continue to shrink, the number of single points of widespread failure. Yes, the Internet was built to withstand a bomb outage is true - but as we have been writing for 20 years now, this Internet is not that Internet. The path to today's Internet has led from the decentralized era of Usenet, IRC, and own-your-own mail server to web hosting farms to the walled gardens of Facebook, Google, and Apple, and the AI-dominating Big Nine. In 2013, Edward Snowden's revelations made plain how well that suits surveillance-hungry governments, and it's only gotten worse since, as companies seek to insert themselves into every aspect of our lives - intermediaries that bring us a raft of new insecurities that we have no time or ability to audit.

Increasing complexity, hidden intermediation, increasing numbers of interferers, and increasing scale all add up to a brittle and fragile Internet, onto which we continue to pile all our most critical services and activities. What could possibly go wrong?


Illustrations: Map of the Colonial Pipeline.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.

June 4, 2021

Data serfs

Asklepios_-_Epidauros.jpgIt is shameful that the UK government has apparently refused to learn anything over decades of these discussions, and is now ordering GPs in England to send their patient data to NHSx beginning on July 1 and continuing daily thereafter. GPs are unhappy about this. Patients - that is, the English population - have until June 23 to opt out. Government information has been so absent that if it were not for medConfidential we might not even know it was happening. The opt-out process is a dark pattern; here's how.

The pandemic has taught us a lot about both upsides and downsides of sharing information. The downside is the spread of covid conspiracy theories, refusal to accept public health measures, and death threats to public health experts.

But there's so much more upside. The unprecedented speed with which we got safe and effective vaccinations was enormously boosted by the Internet. The original ("ancestral") virus was genome-sequenced and shared across the world within days, enabling everyone to get cracking. While the heavy reliance on preprint servers meant some errors have propagated, rapid publication and direct access to experts has done far more good than harm overall.

Crowdsourcing is also proving its worth: by collecting voluntary symptom and test/vaccination status reports from 4.6 million people around the UK, the Covid Symptom Study, to which I've contributed daily for more than a year, has identified additional symptoms, offered early warning of developing outbreaks, and assessed the likelihood of post-vaccination breakthrough covid infections. The project is based on an app built by the startup Joinzoe in collaboration with 15 charities and academic research organizations. From the beginning it has seemed an obviously valuable effort worth the daily five seconds it takes to report - and worth giving up a modest amount of data privacy for - because the society-wide benefit is so obvious. The key points: the data they collect is specific, they show their work and how my contribution fits in, I can review what I've sent them, and I can stop at any time. In the blog, the project publishes ongoing findings, many of which have generated journal papers for peer review.

The government plans meet none of these criteria. The data grab is comprehensive, no feedback loop is proposed, and the subject access rights enshrined in data protection law are not available. How could it be more wrong?

Established in 2019, NHSx is the "digital arm" of the National Health Service. It's the branch that commissioned last year's failed data-collecting contact tracing app ("failed", as in many people correctly warned that their centralized design was risky and wouldn't work,). NHSx is all data and contracts. It has no direct relationship with patients, and many people don't know it exists. This is the organization that is demanding the patient records of 56 million people, a policy Ross Anderson dates to 1992.

If Britain has a national religion it's the NHS. Yes, it's not perfect, and yes, there are complaints - but it's a lot like democracy: the alternatives are worse. The US, the only developed country that has refused a national health system, is near-universally pitied by those outside it. For those reasons, no politician is ever going to admit to privatizing the NHS, and most citizens are suspicious, particularly of conservatives, that this is what they secretly want to do.

Brexit has heightened these fears, especially among those of us who remember 2014, when NHS England announced care.data, a plan to collect and potentially sell NHS patient data to private companies. Reconstructing the UK's economy post-EU membership has always been seen as involving a trade deal with the US, which is likely to demand free data flows and, most people believe, access to the NHS for its private medical companies. Already, more than 50 GPs' practices (1%) are managed by Operose, a subsidiary of US health insurer Centene. The care.data plan was rapidly canceled with a promise to retreat and rethink.

Seven years later, the new plan is the old plan, dusted off, renamed, and expanded. The story here is the same: it's not that people aren't willing to share data; it's that we're not willing to hand over full control. The Joinzoe app has worked because every day each contributor remakes the decision to participate and because the researchers provide a direct feedback loop that shows how the data is being used and the results. NHSx isn't offering any of that. It is assuming the right to put our most sensitive personal data into a black box it owns and controls and keep doing so without granting us any feedback or recourse. This is worse than advertisers pretending that we make free choices to accept tracking. No one in this country has asked for their relationship with their doctor to be intermediated by a bunch of unknown data managers, however well-meaning. If their case for the medical and economic benefits is so strong (and really, it is, *when done right*), why not be transparent and open about it?

The pandemic has made the case for the value of pooling medical data. But it has also been a perfect demonstration of what happens when trust seeps out of a health system - as it does when governments feudally treat citizens as data serfs. *Both* lessons should be learned.


Illustrations: Asklepios, Greek god of medicine.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.