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Wed, 14 Sep 2016

Everyone’s favorite security analyst Bruce Schneier seems to think that somebody is learning how to “take down the Internet” by repeatedly probing key pieces of “basic infrastructure” — exactly what’s being probed isn’t stated, but the smart money is on the DNS root servers. Naturally, who is doing this is left unsaid as well, although Schneier does at least hazard the obvious guess at China and Russia.

If this is true, it’s a seemingly sharp escalation towards something that might legitimately be called ‘cyberwarfare’, as opposed to simply spying-using-computers, which is most of what gets lumped in under that label today. Though, it’s not clear exactly why a state-level actor would want to crash DNS; it’s arguably not really “taking down the Internet”, although it would mess up a lot of stuff for a while. Even if you took down the root DNS servers, it wouldn’t stop IP packets from being routed around (the IP network itself is pretty resilient), and operators could pretty quickly unplug their caching DNS resolvers and let them run independently, restoring service to their users. You could create a mess for a while, but it wouldn’t be crippling in the long term.

Except perhaps as one component of a full-spectrum, physical-world attack, it doesn’t make a ton of sense to disrupt a country’s DNS resolvers for a few hours. And Russia and China don’t seem likely to actually attack the U.S. anytime soon; relations with both countries seem to be getting worse over time, but they’re not shooting-war bad yet. So why do it?

The only reason that comes to mind is that it’s less ‘preparation’ than ‘demonstration’. It’s muscle flexing on somebody’s part, and not particularly subtle flexing at that. The intended recipient of the message being sent may not even be the U.S., but some third party: “see what we can do to the U.S., and imagine what we can do to you”.

Or perhaps the eventual goal is to cover for a physical-world attack, but not against the U.S. (where it would probably result in the near-instant nuclear annihilation of everyone concerned). Perhaps the idea is to use a network attack on the U.S. as a distraction, while something else happens in the real world? Grabbing eastern Ukraine, or Taiwan, just as ideas.

Though an attack on the DNS root servers would be inconvenient in the short run, I am not sure that in the long run that it would be the worst thing to happen to the network as an organism: DNS is a known weakness of the global Internet already, one that desperately needs a fix but where there’s not enough motivation to get everyone moving together. An attack would doubtless provide that motivation, and be a one-shot weapon in the process.

Update: This article from back in April, published by the ‘Internet Governance Project’, mentions a Chinese-backed effort to weaken US control over the root DNS, either by creating additional root servers or by potentially moving to a split root. So either the probing or a future actual disruption of DNS could be designed to further this agenda.

In 2014, [Paul] Vixie worked closely with the state-owned registry of China (CNNIC) to promote a new IETF standard that would allow the number of authoritative root servers to increase beyond the current limit of 13. As a matter of technical scalability, that may be a good idea. The problem is its linkage to a country that has long shown a more than passing interest in a sovereign Internet, and in modifying the DNS to help bring about sovereign control of the Internet. For many years, China has wanted its “own” root server. The proposal was not adopted by IETF, and its failure there seems to have prompted the formation and continued work of the YETI-DNS project.

The YETI-DNS project appears, at the moment, to be defunct. Still, China would seem to have the most to gain by making the current U.S.-based root DNS system seem fragile, given the stated goal of obtaining their own root servers.

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Sun, 11 Sep 2016

If you can only bear to read one 9/11 retrospective or tribute piece this year, I’d humbly suggest — if you are not already familiar — reading the story of Rick Rescorla, one of the many heroes of the WTC evacuation.

The Real Heroes Are Dead, written by James B. Stewart in The New Yorker, from February 2002, is worth the read.

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Fri, 09 Sep 2016

This was originally posted to Hacker News as a comment in a discussion about “microhousing”. The question I was responding to was:

What is NIMBY for microhousing based on?

This is an ongoing argument in Northern Virginia (which is not quite as expensive as SF / Seattle / NYC, but probably only one cost tier below that) over micro-housing, typically in the form of backyard apartments and the subdivision of single-family homes into boarding houses, and the major arguments are basically the same issues that apply to all “just build more housing, stupid” proposals.

Basically, if you suddenly build a lot more housing, you’d start to strain the infrastructure of the community in other ways. That strain is really, really unpleasant to other people who share the infrastructure, and so current residents — who are often already feeling like things are strained and getting worse over time — would rather avoid making things worse. The easiest way to avoid making things worse is just to control the number of residents, and the easiest way to do that is to control the amount of housing: If you don’t live here, you’re probably not using the infrastructure. QED.

In many ways, building more housing is the easiest problem to solve when it comes to urban infrastructure. Providing a heated place out of the rain just isn’t that hard, compared to (say) transportation or schools or figuring out economically sustainable economic balance.

Existing residents are probably (and reasonably) suspicious that once a bunch of tiny apartments are air-dropped in, and then a bunch of people move in to fill them up, that there won’t be any solution to any of the knock-on problems that will inevitably result — parking, traffic, school overcrowding, tax-base changes, stress to physical infrastructure like gas/water/sewer/electric systems — until those systems become untenably broken. I mean, I can’t speak to Seattle, but those things are already an increasingly-severe problem today, with the current number of residents, in my area, and people don’t have much faith in government’s ability to fix them; so the idea that the situation will be improved once everyone installs a couple of backyard apartments is ridiculous. (And then there are questions like: how are these backyard apartments going to be taxed? Are people who move in really going to pay more in taxes than they consume in services and infrastructure impact, or is this going to externalize costs via taxes on everyone else? There’s no clear answer to these questions, and people are reluctant to become the test case.)

If you want more housing, you need more infrastructure. If you want more infrastructure, either you need a different funding model or you need better government and more trust in that government. Our government is largely (perceived to be) broken, and public infrastructure is (perceived to be) broken or breaking, and so the unsurprising result is that nobody wants to build more housing and add more strain to a system that’s well beyond its design capacity anyway.

That’s why there’s so much opposition to new housing construction, particularly to ideas that look just at ways to provide more housing without doing anything else. You’re always going to get a lot of opposition to “just build housing” proposals unless they’re part of a compelling plan to actually build a community around that new housing.

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