Can the Net Protect Itself?

By Peter Coffee  |  Posted 2001-08-27

To have a long, lucrative criminal career, you have to be hard to find. Technology, therefore, determines how well crime pays—and todays IT trends clearly favor the bad guys.

Preachers and philosophers might like to think theyre the ones who inspire good behavior, but engineers and economists are closer to the truth. For example, look at the history of piracy at sea. When wooden-hull ships were driven by wind and sail, repairs were as close as the nearest tree-lined shore; motive power was, literally, free as air. But when sail gave way to steam, and timber hulls gave way to iron and steel, one needed access to coal wharves and shipyards to be a competitive power. The entrepreneurial pirate ceased to be.

The information economy began with cumbersome assets tied to massive infrastructure. All users depended on wired networks and costly, glass-house computing installations: fixed assets, too valuable to abandon, too easy to find. You couldnt attack the system without getting caught. But computers have grown so inexpensive that losing some hardware is an acceptable risk, like a smuggler losing a speedboat whose replacement cost is less than the profit from just one run.

A network connection no longer even implies having a traceable location: Attackers can already roam the perimeter of a corporate or an academic campus and find unsecured wireless portals. Yo ho ho and a packet of transferred funds.

Weve found social solutions to similar problems before. When the automobile suddenly made it easy to leave a crime scene quickly, we required conspicuous license plates on cars. Think about it: Those unique ID tags certainly infringe on our right to go where we please with anonymity. Do you think you could introduce such a thing today? But at the time, we were able to reach a consensus that the alternative was worse.

Will we soon demand easy identifiability of users on the network? Intels processor ID scheme may have appeared before people were ready, but the time when the community insists on some such measure may soon be at hand.

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