Auscert 2012: Cyber-war debate moving too slowly: Bill Caelli

The legal black hole of Internet security is hampering efforts to respond to attacks, according to Emeritus Professor Bill Caelli of Queensland University of Technology.

Highlighting that the Internet and IT industry still face the same questions as were being asked in the 1990s – for example, trying to define the role of government and the defence establishment in defending “citizens and commerce” against network-borne attacks – but little progress has been made in establishing security and response frameworks.

Twelve years ago, he noted, he had asked the question, “what are the roles of the citizen, of government, law enforcement and the military”, in relation to computer attacks – and too many of those questions remain unanswered or are poorly answered.

With such debates not much advanced, he said, the world is not much closer to deciding whether defence (“I have a big firewall – don’t attack me because I’m well-defended”) is sufficient, or whether an offensive capability is required, if only as a deterrent. “But what is a deterrent?” Caelli asked the delegates.

To advance the debate, Caelli highlighted topics he believes need to be resolved in the public debate. The political and legal communities need to help the world understand the relative importance of different systems. Victims, he said, “have little policy protection or legal recourse. All they have is non-binding codes of practice that really don’t help much.”

And the protection of national critical infrastructure – itself ill-defined – is problematic. “Even probing back at an attacker” might fall foul of local computer crimes legislation; launching a counter-attack is illegal. Any counter-attack would (for example) constitute a breach of computer crimes legislation that forbids any “disruption” of a computer or network without distinguishing the motives of the attacker or the nature of the target.

It’s feasible, in other words, that Microsoft’s botnet takedown would fall foul of the laws in this country.

Even the role of bodies such as AusCERT (and its analogues in other countries) may benefit from more status as a “defender” of network infrastructure, rather than merely a service.

And if the security response is to be left entirely to the private sector, should they not be given some formal legal status – the “letters of marque” that once licensed privateers on the high seas.

“We have to think about policy and law now, because it is happening now,” Caelli told CSO Australia

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