Security, Hierarchy, and Networked Governance

UnlockedThe capacity for the Internet to route around damage and censorship is dependent on there being multiple pathways for data to be routed. What happens when there are incredibly few pathways, and when many of the existing paths contain hidden traps that undermine communications security and privacy? This question is always relevant when talking about communications, but has become particularly topical given recent events that compromised some of the Internet’s key security infrastructure and trust networks.

On March 22 2011, Tor researchers disclosed a vulnerability in the certificate authority (CA) system. Certificates are used to encrypt data traffic between parties and to guarantee that security certificates are actually issued to the parties holding them. The CA system underpins a massive number of the Internet’s trust relationships; when individuals log into their banks, some social networking services, and many online email services, their data traffic is encrypted to prevent a third-party from listening into the content of the communication. Those encrypted sessions are made possible by the certificates issued by certificate authorities. The Tor researchers announced that an attacker had compromised a CA and issued certificates that let the attacker impersonate the security credentials associated with many of the world’s most prominent websites. Few individuals would ever detect this subterfuge. In effect, Tor researchers discovered that a central element of the Internet’s trust network was broken.

In this post I want to do a few things. First, I’ll briefly describe the attack and its accompanying risks. This will, in part, see me briefly discuss modes of surveillance and motivations for different gradients of surveillance. I next address a growing problem for today’s Internet users: the points of trust we depend on, such as CAs and the DNS infrastructure, are increasingly unreliable. As a result, states can overtly or subtly manipulate to disrupt or monitor their citizens’ communications. Finally, I suggest that in spite of these points of control, states are increasingly limited in their capacities to unilaterally enforce their will. As a consequence of networked governance, and its accompanying power structures, citizens can impose accountability on states and limit their ability to (re)distribute power across and between nodes of networks. Thus, networked governance not only transforms state power but redistributes (some) power to non-state actors, empowering those actors to resist illegitimate state actions.

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