Q&A: Threats to the US critical communications infrastructure
by Mirko Zorz - Tuesday, 14 October 2008.
Paul Parisi is the CTO of DNSstuff.com and has an extremely broad and deep technical background offering reality based solutions to everyday issues. In this interview he discusses the biggest threats to the communications infrastructure, the full disclosure of vulnerabilities as well as cyberterrorism.

What are currently the most significant threats to the US critical communications infrastructure?

It depends on what one defines as critical communications infrastructure. Certainly this should include:
  • Radio (RF) communications for law enforcement and public safety
  • Telecommunications (cellular and landline telephone communications)
  • Internet communications
Each of the above can support its own rational for use and value. The simplest and most effective means to impede that use/value is to limit the effectiveness of the medium. For example, if you cannot place a phone call you have reduced the telecommunications infrastructure to zero, at least for the person trying to place the call. Similarly, operating an illegal radio frequency jamming device can yield similar results in the case of RF communications.

Again with Internet communications – similar results can be attained by employing easily executed denial-of-service (DOS) attacks. All of the modes of communication are implicitly vulnerable to DOS attacks. DOS attacks are easily mitigated by detecting the source of the attack and dealing with the cause at the originating location. Distributed denial of service attacks (DDOS) are much more difficult to mitigate as they occur from many locations and may even change locations as time progresses. Additionally, if you were to render a Venn-diagram of these three mediums, it shows that there are overlaps which could exacerbate effects in any one of the mediums.

What can be done to mitigate these threats?

Let’s examine each medium:

Radio Frequency – to date, the deterrent to the compromise of the RF communications infrastructure is based solely on the law and legal enforcement as interference is detected. Government agencies, via methods of triangulation, determine locations of interference and act as necessary to address the source. If someone was not concerned with the legal repercussions it would be virtually impossible to prevent deliberate interference.

Telecommunications – again, as with all of these mediums, we have the law and its enforcement as a significant deterrent. The only truly viable means to mitigate a DOS or DDOS attack on the telecommunications infrastructure is to build private telecom networks. Many exist and have existed for years. However, it should be noted that much of the private telecommunications traffic has moved to transit over the public Internet. This presents an Achilles-heel which could be exploited.

Internet – the Internet by its very nature and design is a network of trust, largely only regulated by each participant’s common sense. In some ways it is similar to a large road and highway infrastructure, but with no police or legal authority to enforce common sense.

Typically problems are only “noticed” when it is too late and the impact of the problem is felt by multiple people. The current protocols in use on the Internet do not offer explicit nor implicit security. If we begin to layer on new protocols and allow the old protocols to persist, we leave ourselves open to nearly all of the problems of the older protocols. In response to the problems, a significant step would be to disallow the old protocols. However, this would be very painful. Potentially a new Internet could be deployed which addresses these inherent issues and only allow peering with compliant participants.

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