I loved being a firefighter. In what other job do you get to speed around running red lights, chops someone’s door down with an axe, pull down their ceiling, rip down their walls, cut holes in their roof with a chainsaw, soak everything they own with water, and then have them stop by the office a few days later to give you the cookies they baked for you.

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Now, if you try and do any of those things when you’re off duty and the house isn’t on fire, you tend to go to jail. But on duty and on fire? The police will arrest the homeowner if they get in your way.

Society has long accepted that there are times when the public interest outweighs even the most fundamental private rights. Thus I think it is long past time we applied this principle to cybersecurity and authorized appropriate intervention in support of national (and international) security.

One of the major problems we have in cybersecurity today is that the vulnerabilities of the many are the vulnerabilities of everyone. All those little unpatched home systems out there are the digital equivalent of burning houses in crowded neighborhoods. Actually, it’s probably closer to a mosquito-infested pool an owner neglects to maintain. Whatever analogy you want to use, in all cases it’s something that, if it were the physical world, someone would come to legally take care of, even if the owner tried to stop them.

But we know of multiple cases on the Internet where private researchers (and likely government agencies) have identified botnets or other compromised systems being used for active attack, yet due to legal fears they can’t go and clean the systems. Even when they know they have control of the botnet and can erase it and harden the host, they legally can’t. Our only option seems to be individually informing ISPs, which may or may not take action, depending on their awareness and subscriber agreements.

Here’s what I propose. We alter the law and empower an existing law enforcement agency to proactively clean or isolate compromised systems. This agency will be mandated to work with private organizations who can aid in their mission. Like anything related to the government, it needs specific budget, staff, and authority that can’t be siphoned off for other needs.

When a university or other private researcher discovers some botnet they can shut down and clean out, this law enforcement agency can review and authorize action. Everyone involved is shielded from being sued short of gross negligence. The same agency will also be empowered to work with international (and national) ISPs to take down malicious hosting and service providers (legally, of course). Again, this specific mission must be mandated and budgeted, or it won’t work.

Right now the bad guys operate with impunity, and law enforcement is woefully underfunded and undermandated for this particular mission. By engaging with the private sector and dedicating resources to the problem, we can make life a heck of a lot harder for the bad guys. Rather than just trying to catch them, we devote as much or more effort to shutting them down.

Call me an idealist.

(I don’t have any digital pics from firefighting days, so that’s a more-recent hazmat photo. The banda

a is to keep sweat out of my eyes; it’s not a daily fashion choice).