Singapore, a country that is so proud of its technology culture that it has branded the term “smart nation,” has unplugged some of its government offices from the internet and is working on a plan to unplug the entire public sector by next year. According to a Reuters report, the idea is that this will prevent cyberattacks.
It’s a disturbing development and the latest sign that the internet could be fragmenting ¾ that is, evolving from the ideal of a single globally connected web into many smaller, sealed-off networks.
Singapore is creating what, in jargon, is termed an “air-gap” between government computers and the global internet. As a result, work computers inside ministries can communicate with each other but not with the outside world. (Government employees can still use their personal computers to access the internet.) Air-gapping is common at high-risk targets like intelligence agencies and nuclear plants, but, as a Cisco System official put it, the approach is “most unusual” government-wide.
David Koh, who heads Singapore’s Cyber Security Agency, said the air-gap policy will go into effect next May because the threat of a cyber attack “is too real.” He told Reuters “the attack surface is like a building with a zillion windows, doors, fire escapes.”
Ramki Thurimella, chair of the computer science department at the University of Denver, called the Singapore action “unprecedented” and “a little excessive,” according to the Reuters report.
Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, who graduated from Cambridge University with a degree in computer science, admitted that the move will harm productivity, but he was quoted by the Financial Times as saying, “We have become completely dependent on our IT systems…and we have to make sure that our system is secure.”
No doubt, governments and businesses in proximity to China have a greater risk of being hacked or attacked, but while air-gapping can certainly increase security, it’s far from foolproof. A well-placed USB thumb drive can pull files from an air-gapped computer (remember the Chelsea Manning case?) or infect a network (as the Stuxnet worm did to Iran’s nuclear sites). A Wired article last year showed how Israeli researchers stole data from an air-gapped network using “the GSM network, electromagnetic waves and a basic low-end mobile phone.”
But whether the plan actually makes Singapore’s government significantly less vulnerable to cyberattacks or not, the development is troubling because the trajectory is so familiar and so dangerous to human freedom.
Governments like China and Cuba are isolating citizens from parts of the global network, in effect creating their own limited national internets. Just yesterday, I heard a leading strategist for dissident movements recommend offline communications as the best way to maintain security against authoritarian regimes bent on spying on opponents and imprisoning them.
What the internet actually needs is more connectivity, not less. Only 40 percent of the world’s population is online (although that’s up from 1 percent in 1995), and most internet users don’t have full access. “Freedom on the Net,” the annual report by Freedom House, found in 2015 that internet freedom had declined for the fifth year in a row. (Singapore, by the way, ranks as only “partly free,” according to Freedom House. Among other actions, the government has cracked down on dissident bloggers and shut down a site under the Sedition Act.)
The global-internet goal should be complete, unrestricted internet access for all. The internet should be like air. No one should be denied it. Yes, cybersecurity is a serious problem, but it needs to be resolved within the context of an utterly free and connected internet. The Singaporeans should be embarrassed by their air-gap policy.
Instead of air-gapping its government, the country should become a model for expanded internet freedom and connectivity. Rather than sealing themselves off, officials should use their brilliant technology culture to find a solution that keeps government linked, 24/7, to its 5 million citizens. Singapore has been a role model to the rest of the world for its free-market economy; it should be a model too for a free internet.Source: http://www.aei.org/publication/singapores-wrong-turn-on-the-internet/