Thursday, February 24, 2011

Is an 'Internet Kill Switch' Feasible in the U.S.?

With the myriad of recent uprisings in the Middle East, those foreign governments have been attempting to stem the tide of revolution by cutting off internet access for millions of its citizens. Hypothetically, if it ever wanted to, could the U.S. government have a reasonable capability to implement a similar "internet kill switch"?

The short answer is no, although it might try.

Currently, there is legislation in the works sponsored by Senator Susan Collins, titled the "Cyber Security and American Competitiveness Act of 2011", which would authorize the president to shut down the nation's critical digital infrastructure in the event of a cybersecurity emergency. This bill would not condone the complete shutdown or censorship of the internet for citizens, as those foreign despots have done, however many critics are nevertheless concerned about the opportunities for abuse.

But would the type of complete shutdown that critics fear even be possible on a technical level?

Security Week posted a terrific article citing three main reasons why it would NOT be possible...

  1. "In order to control, direct, or limit routing, which is essentially what would be required, the government would have to have visibility and a solid understanding of all Internet assets and their routing commands. When considering the global Internet, you must have the ability to view it, map it, and track it from multiple perspectives and vantage points". Quite simply, this is not the case.

  2. The U.S. operates on a completely different scale than those Middle Eastern countries in terms of both ownership and governance of its cyber assets. The same rules of control do not apply.

  3. "An effective surgical response requires sensing and validating the cyber-emergency from multiple sources, sharing the appropriate notice and responsibility with critical infrastructure partners and relevant agencies, and managing a distributed means to synchronize, execute, and monitor the shut down activity". Granted, U.S. national cybersecurity policy has a bare-bones system of coordination in place to react to emergencies, however most experts agree that it isn't quite yet up to the monumental challenges for which it is tasked.

The internet is a decentralized collection of privately owned and operated networks, and as such the U.S. government is extremely limited in its control over all of its component assets. This isn't always the case with despotic regimes overseas, which maintain stricter controls on ISPs, if not outright ownership in the form of state-controlled monopolies. So the lesson here is not to draw any conclusions about how, if the president of Libya can flip an internet kill switch for its citizens, then the same possibility exists here at home too. It doesn't. It's like comparing apples and oranges.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Cybercheating Rate Tops 61% Among Undergraduate Students...

In the spirit of beginning a new semester, take a look at this research study conducted by Neil Selwyn. It finds that 61.9% of undergraduate students engage in "cybercheating". Furthermore, the most active cheaters are those in the sciences, and particularly those with higher levels of proficiency in computer technology.

Cybercheating is defined as any cheating that is enabled by the internet – so cybercheating can occur in any course, and is not unique to online courses.

As anyone who teaches undergrad courses will attest, cybercheating and all forms of online plagiarism, for that matter, run rampant. The study confirms this with the following findings...

  • 50% of students admitted to cybercheating at some point while they were in college.

  • Another 30-40% of students admitted to copying text from the internet into their own work without citing the source. 10-20% did so for large sections of their assignments (i.e. more than a sentence here and there).

  • About 25% of graduate students engage in these same behaviors.

What is particularly interesting is the breakdown by field of study...

  1. Engineering and technology (72%)
  2. Computer sciences and mathematical sciences (71%)
  3. Social studies (64%)
  4. Business and administrative studies (63%)
  5. Law (62%)
  6. Creative arts and design (61%)
  7. Architecture, Building and Planning (60%)
  8. Medicine (58%)
  9. Natural sciences (57%)
  10. Humanities (46%)

It appears that the more expertise one has in computer technology, the more likely they are to use it to their perceived benefit. That's hardly a shocking statement, and in my personal experience teaching Computer Science courses, this resonates as decidedly accurate.

However, what's perhaps most fascinating is that the digital culture in which these students have been raised - downloading copyrighted music on LimeWire, movies on BitTorrent, etc. - has created a certain psychology of permissibility. One 19-year-old engineering student is quoted as saying...

As more and more people are using the Internet illegally, I feel that the chances of being caught or the consequences of my actions are almost insignificant. So I feel no pressure in doing what ever everybody else is doing/using the Internet for.

Neo-academic Richard Landers is completely right in describing this as "purposeful deception, and not much regret over it".

Well, before any aspiring students get any bright ideas, let me assure you that while tech-savvy undergrads may feel inclined to give cybercheating a try, those of us tech-savvy instructors (who, by the way, may have spent numerous years in graduate school researching the ins-and-outs of said technologies) are even more likely to use digital tactics to detect and prevent it. And, in case you're unaware, almost every university these days buys licenses for different software tools that detect online plagiarism, enabling even the least tech-savvy instructors to prevent cybercheating.

Bottom line, the fact that 61.9% of undergraduate students are cybercheating isn't all that shocking. But, make no mistake, it's not allowed, and if you're caught, you will undoubtedly pay the consequences. Bottom line... don't be an idiot.

Have I scared you adequately enough yet?