Telcos a threat to online security, claims author

While New Zealanders may be worried about being forced to assume too much responsibility when it comes to internet banking security, author David Isenberg is fearful the banks themselves could be compromised -- by the telcos.

In a "nightmare" scenario the author of the 1997 paper The Rise of the Stupid Network described the consequences of allowing telephone companies to complicate the internet with supposedly beneficial internal intelligence -- and the "blackmail" that follows on from this.

Isenberg painted this scenario during his speech at the recent TUANZ Telecommunications Day conference, which was held earlier this month.

"In my nightmare, [telco control] becomes a form of blackmail, because if you tell, say, a bank that there's a 'secure transaction service' -- whether there is or not -- and that bank doesn't use it and there's a security breach anywhere for any reason" the bank could suffer, at best, a knock to its reputation, but it's also legally liable.

Under US law, legal liability can be incurred by not choosing such a service "because that would demonstrably indicate that it [the bank] wasn't taking every possible precaution" says Isenberg.

"I imagine it would be the same for medical services and any service where you have a public duty to be competent."

Isenberg also dealt with the more common nightmare of a dictatorial government spying on personal internet traffic, by using deep-packet inspection -- again, a consequence of too much network intelligence -- and then bundling him away to an anonymous prison cell.

Then there is the most plausible of nightmares -- the one concerning traffic prioritization. "In my nightmare, once the telephone company has some applications that generate more revenue, because they're subject to 'management', and others that don't the former get all the newest, fastest, shiniest network upgrades, while the latter languish on what soon becomes yesterday's network.

"Innovations that don't yet have a revenue-stream are consigned to second-class service or subjected to other barriers that keep them off the network. In my nightmare, all but the most mundane innovation dies."

Much of this supposed need for "management" will be based on the myth of bandwidth scarcity, Isenberg says.

"[But] we have the technology -- affordable technology -- to never be bandwidth-limited again," he told the TUANZ audience. As an illustration, he held up a section of an 864-fiber cable. "Each fiber can carry 160 wavelengths; each wavelength is capable of carrying at least 10Gbit/s, and this technology has been around at least five years. These numbers are, if anything, conservative. That 1.6Tbit/s signal can go from Russell to Dunedin without regeneration. This is an educated guess, I don't really know the state-of-the-art of undersea, but probably the signal can go from Auckland to Sydney, without regeneration.

"Now, imagine this cable running down your street, and every one of you could get 10 or 12 fibers, imagine how close the rest of the world would seem."

Then he painted a dream scenario. Using more "back of the envelope calculations" -- based on an existing project, in Lafayette, Louisiana -- Isenberg estimated that a 100 Mbit/s service could be provided to every home in NZ that has a use for it, at a total cost of NZ$4.2 billion (US$3.2 billion). The necessary upgrade to the Southern Cross undersea cable, to provide the international backhaul, would cost an estimated NZ$2 billion, he said.

This is rather more than the NZ$1.5 billion pledged by John Key, to equip 75% of Kiwi homes with modest bandwidth. However, Isenberg suggests such could be financed through a private-public partnership and the issue of bonds.

To achieve this objective within five years would entail spending 1% of New Zealand's GDP, he said.

"Would you think that if you had fiber to every home and 1,000 times the internet capacity that your GDP would grow more than 1% a year? I'd be ready to buy a bond," he said.

Isenberg's dream scenario would bring New Zealand closer to the rest of the world and refresh alternative views, he said. We might even uncover a Kiwi Einstein who would not have developed his or her ideas but for the information available online.

In face of sceptics, who pointed to mundane issues such as trenching costs and the Resource Management Act, Isenberg persisted: "Where there's a will there's a right-of-way".

Backward-looking citizens had tried to obstruct the Lafayette plan, but court hearings and a public vote won the day for "civic pride", he said.

"So go do it," he urged.

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