Denver - 19:45:43 7 Jun 2019 UTC/1:45 PM MST
The summer sun lit up the room as it shone through the window. The light was clear today, with no gray, smoggy coloring. Outside, the Rockies would be seen clearly with a clear blue sky above them. Snow still dotted the hills from a late May snow storm, but there was not a lot left. Marie bent over a notebook on her lap, reviewing her writing and occasionally marking things up for future edits. She occasionally glanced at a monitor on the desk next to her, but her attention was focused on her review. She had noticed the beautiful spring day but had too much work to do before she could appreciate it.
A 'beep' emerged from the computer speaker and Marie glanced up at the monitor. When she saw the message on screen, she put the notebook on the desk and turned her chair to face the monitor. As her eyes scanned back and forth across the data, she moved the mouse and clicked on one of the parameters for her bot net. After the events of the last few years with social media she had set up her own bot net to monitor and tamp down divisive messages. She worked with a few others, using a private network to exchange information and software before deploying their tools on the Internet. Governments were still trying to figure out what happened so there were vigilante groups, like the one she worked with, who were working to reshape internet communication.
They called their group “The Doctors” because they were using surgical precision and all agreed on the motto "First, Do no Harm". The group operated their bots openly and with an aim to mute hateful and divisive speech. The current event which had caught her software’s spybot’s interest showed a trending topic of "marijuana legalization" and "state’s rights". With states continuing to legalize marijuana and the strong opinions on it’s use, it was a natural topic for heated discussions that led nowhere. Her bot net would monitor and respond to other bots that were attempting to be divisive by posting silly content and memes. These posts would confuse the troll bots and usually freeze them or stop them from commenting with emotional bait. That way, discussions could occur on the topic instead of emotional ideas and beliefs. Other bot nets attempted to stop the trolls completely with things like Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks, sharing personal information or physical attacks on the operators of hostile bot nets. Those were subject to shut down by ISPs, and state and federal law enforcement, which limited their effectiveness. So far, her group had stayed on-line when others who were more direct had been shut down by ISPs and state agencies. Many viewed the information war too literally, her group preferred more subtlety.
She watched for a few minutes as the topic peaked, flattened, then started dropping in interest as the social media shares dropped off. Her eyes flicked across the screen again, looking for new trends, but nothing in areas she chose to monitor. Over in the corner of the screen she noticed the clock showed 1:53, almost time for her appointment. As she got up, she wondered why Warrick had wanted to meet with her in person. She had met him on-line in the forum for other security people like herself. He worked for a company implementing DNSSEC and other security protocols. They had occasionally traded messages but she was interested in other areas of cybersecurity.
Looking back at the computer clock she saw that he would be here in another five minutes, so she stood up and stretched before walking to the front room. She picked up her notebooks and scanned the screen again. One final glance at the monitor showed things were still quiet, which was reassuring. She knew that the chaos from a few years ago could easily start up again and not everyone knew or was willing to recognize the dangers of the current open internet.
The front room was on the same side of the house as her home office so it also had a large window a view of the mountains. She had spent some time this morning picking up the clutter and the cleaning service had cleaned the house the day before. A quick glance around the room showed that everything looked neat, surfaces free of her usual jumble of items and a fit place to receive guests. Warrick was bringing a friend along who wanted to meet her and talk about her ideas for improving security. She put her notebook down on the table by her chair, then walked over to the kitchen to get a water pitcher, glasses and some snacks and placed them on a tray. Normally she was all business but she still enjoyed playing old-fashioned hostess every now and then. Her husband Joseph was on travel for his company Solartech as they continued expanding into new markets around the country so there had not been any dinner parties lately where she could indulge herself in this. The morning preparations allowed her to just pull things from the cupboard and refrigerator and set them up on the tray. A paper doily added a nice touch on the antique trays she liked to use, allowing the hand painted pansies to show through the lacy cutouts.
She had just gotten to the front room and was placing the tray. There was a knock on the door as she sat the tray on the coffee table next to the sofa. After carefully setting things down, she walked over to the door and looking through the window saw two people standing just outside. She recognized Warrick looked like from pictures he had shared but she did not recognize his friend. Throwing the deadbolt back, she opened the door.
Smiling, she said "Welcome, come in Warrick, it's good to meet you in person. Come in, you’ve picked a lovely time of year to visit our part of the country.
Warrick walked in,and said “It’s good to meet you too.” He held out his hand and she reached over for a quick handshake. Warrick walked in the room and his friend followed him. Warrick said "What a beautiful view, and so clear out today."
Marie had just shut the door and moved out in front of both of the men. Warrick was looking out the front window at the Rockies but she noticed that although Warrick's friend faced the window he was not looking at the view. She could see just his eyes moving as he scanned his surroudnings.
"So, who's your friend? Is he interested in cybersecurity or something else?" Warrick glanced back at him, Marie noticed a slight nod before Warrick turned to her to answer.
"This is Les Green, erm, he is interested in cybersecurity. I'll let him explain." Warrick stepped over to the couch and Les stepped up and stiffly held his right hand out. Marie reached out for the handshake while studying his face. He was now focused on her but there was no smile, just a neutral expression on his face.
"Ma'am, it's a pleasure to meet you. I asked Warrick to introduce us because I'd like to hear about your research paper."
"My research paper? The one about Trusted Internet? I posted that only on our secure forum and just a few days ago. How did you get a copy, I don't recognize your name, Warrick, did you share my paper? You know it's not ready yet," Marie said. She still held Les’ hand as she turned toward Warrick. She looked back at Les, who had the same neutral look. Puzzled, she looked back at Warrick as she pulled her hand back. Warrick shrugged and sat down on the couch while Marie wondered what was up.
"Why don't we sit down ma'am and I'll explain a bit more about who I am." Les cocked an eyebrow at Marie and looked over to the couch while she frowned. Les then motioned towards the seats and matched his actions with his words by walking over and sitting down next to Warrick. Marie continued to stand where she was, using her best school marm expression on Les but he simply looked at her, calm, no emotion while he ignored her stern gaze. When Marie realized she wouldn't get any more information while she stood, she walked over to her chair. Before sitting down she asked, "Does anyone want any water or snacks before we get started?" While she waited for an answer, she poured herself a glass of water and after hearing 'no' from both men, she sat down. She took a sip from the glass, put it down on the side table, then looked at Les. When he saw that she was settled, he leaned forward, elbows on his knees, clasping his hands in front of him.
"Call me Marie," she said.
"Marie, I'm with DARPA and our department works with government groups that monitors forums like the one you and Warrick," he said while nodding towards Warrick, "post in. If you think about events over the last few years, I suspect you wouldn't be too surprised by our actions or who might be interested in discussions about cybersecurity."
Marie knew very well that the US government was probably monitoring their forum but she didn't like facing up to that fact. Congress was slowly working on legislation to deal with a modern era of software and networks but there were still open doors for monitoring by people with enough funds and expertise. After the revelations of 2017 and 2018 she figured the FBI along with other three letter acronym government agencies had active monitoring for US Citizens. She also suspected other countires monitored the forum since the membership was international.
"Go on, I understand why our forum might be monitored but I don't know why my research paper would interest you. It's just a dream at this point, there is no practical application or support for implementing my ideas."
"Ma'am, er, Marie, the US government is interested in improving our capabilities in this area and my group at DARPA is trying to make that happen. We have already been working on securing the Internet but your research shows that we might not be going far enough. I'm here to talk with you about an opportunity to change your ideas into real implementations."
"My Trusted Internet? In order to do that it would be a huge investment and not just by the US." She stopped speaking as she noticed that Les was nodding in agreement, in other words his organization understood that the world needed to think big in order to get a handle on the chaos occurring on the Internet.
"I'd appreciate it if you could tell me a bit more about your ideas, your paper covers them but I’d like to hear about it from you. I’ve been asked to assess the practical aspects of a Trusted Internet and your paper didn’t provide much detail on that.” Les continued to lean forward, gaze focused on Marie as she gathered her thoughts. As far as she knew, her ideas were just dreams that might be partially implemented but might never be practical either. She took a deep breath, decided to start with some background for her ideas before she started explaining them.
"I didn’t include this in my draft paper but I’d like to give you some background for the basis of my ideas. While I am interested in computers, software and how they connect, I am very interested in how people use them. Do they use them as a tool or are they used by the computers? What information do they share with others? And how do the computers connect people to the physical world instead of a virtual reality of bits and bytes? I have done extensive reading on social interactions but for the next stage I would like to get psychologists and sociologists involved in order to truly vet out my theories. I suspect my current theories are too simplified but I had to start somewhere.
“My ideas are based on my reading and observations of people and how they create social groups. Current social theory is based on the idea that we evolved and learned to cooperate in much smaller groups. I believe that we are gradually changing our behaviors but biologically we still have this built-in trust factor for small groups. Over time, human groups developed in much small gatherings than what we currently have. Our trust was based the ability to know people because we grew up with them or were around others who had grown up with them and had direct experience with them. From experience, they would know that you could trust one hunter to always help with food gathering while you knew another hunter would only help if someone he respected pushed him to do it. Our culture of trust expanded when we discovered farming. Now people knew they could trust the blacksmith to finish up with the plow on time while you should always count your change when you dealt with a merchant. There were predictable patterns and small numbers of people that fit within the parameters of our biological memory for individuals around us.
"Eventually towns grew larger and while humans kept the same abilities to judge trust based on past experience and a person's behavior there were more people to remember. In a larger town you didn’t know people personally or others who knew of them. The default behavior was to trust people associated with your town area but an individual would not have direct experience in building that trust. This provided a loophole where people could take advantage of this trust and manipulate others for their personal gain. Eventually, systems were setup to deal with the lack of direct experience with each other in order to minimize the manipulation for personal gain. Human security systems were created as law enforcement and the legal system in order to deal with the lack of trust caused by having more people than our brains could deal with.
“These systems work fairly well, although they do have holes in them. If an unscrupulous person is part of law enforcement, they can take advantage of others because of the grant of trust from their society. There can be checks and balances to keep this from happening, but the system keeps growing and becomes even more cumbersome. Then, with computers, we added in security at the individual level but in a different way. With passwords and secure connections, an individual has to have a token to show they are trustworthy to the system. If another person has a copy of their token, like a password, they can impersonate someone who is supposed to be trustworthy. Instead of automatically trusting, an individual has to prove their right to be trusted, but it still doesn’t solve the problem of preventing manipulation for personal gain.
"Very interesting, but what does this have to do with a trusted internet? I can see how we have carried over the idea of security to our computers and devices, what does trust have to do with improving things?" Les asked her.
"Let me continue a little further with my explanation of why I think there are problems. I promise, the information is needed in order to understand the idea I have.
"With computers, the problem grew worse. When you deal with a person in real life, there is the possibility of physical retaliation, of consequences if someone acts in untrustworthy ways. Con men would take advantage of this, by building up trust, telling a person what they wanted to hear, then swooping in to take money, possessions or other things after they had gained enough trust to get close enough to someone. Yet, even in those instances, if a person realized what is going on, they have a physical description they can give to law enforcement to find the person.
"On computers, people are removed even further from physical presence and don't have to be within physical distance of the person to take advantage. Before computers, phones were used for scams and didn’t require a person to physically take money from someone else. Computers simply expanded this capability at a low cost. Humans are good at improving their tools, which includes tools to steal from others. In a way, we have built a virtual reality, where nothing is quite what it seems and the people you think you know on-line may be completely different people. How do you know for certain that the person you e-mailed is really your mother, your brother, your lover or your good friend? Or are they a scammer, tapping in and hiding behind a fake persona in order to get information from you?
"So, a Trusted Internet is one where you know who is who on the computer?" Warrick asked.
"Exactly!" Marie said, smiling and pointing at Warrick. "But you can't stop with just people. You know of the bot nets, sending out messages that look like they are from people but are automatons spreading a message. Right now, the bots are simple and some people can identify them and choose what they want to do. Yet even in those cases, the bots have an advantage. They use emotional messages that target people's fear. When that happens, emotions get engaged and people interact with these bots even if it makes them angrier or more upset.
“On-line a bot can looks like a person with a posted photo, seems to act like a person because they respond to messages yet the responses are pulled from a database. Since the bots are targeting emotions, they don’t have to be too sophisticated, think of simple insults that get your attention, now picture that multiplied across the Internet as a bot net operator is trying to change attitudes.
“The most obvious use of this is in advertising, pushing people to share a product, buy a product and keep buying a product, no matter what. Other methods involve pushing news stories that are about people's beliefs and which people follow in order to get their fix and validation of their beliefs. When someone thinks a bot is a person that thinks like them, acts like them and believes like them, our trust activates and we swarm to join a group where we are accepted. Our very human qualities of cooperation, trust and working together is used against us in order to manipulate us to certain actions. No one is immune, including people like myself who know this is happening.
“Interesting idea. So, can this knowledge be used to help us instead of taking advantage of people,’ Warrick asked.
“Yes, I think so, it’s just a matter of reframing the problem and working with our natural abilities. What if, there was some additional protocol, that provided a bit of identification about every interaction you have on the Internet with a person or with devices? My idea is that when you see messages, pictures or other content on the internet, there is metadata associated with the content. This data tells is it was posted by a real person or a bot.
“Once you see a person posted a comment, you could see a summary of their actions on the internet. This summary would include a rating for their on-line behavior, such as neutral or friendly content or hateful and divisive content posted. An individual could see their ratings but others would provide the input. Think of something like a credit rating, where an individual can see their credit score but that score is generated by their behavior in borrowing money and paying it back. The input could be generated by transactions between individuals, in order to avoid trolls trying to ruin someone. If someone has a history of abusive behavior, this would show in their summary and others could decide whether to respond or not. People would now use computers a tool to enhance their trust and judgment of others instead of being manipulated by the software for the benefit of others.
"Sounds like a lot of data management. It also sounds like there is the potential to crack the system and create false personas." Les said skeptically.
"Agreed, based on the current infrastructure, I'm sure someone would game the system. What I'm proposing is rebuilding the internet with a new protocol and identification that has to be approved by a central authority."
"So the US would set up some kind of registry and rebuilt parts of the internet? No wonder this would be expensive," Les said. He looked over at Warrick, frowning and said "But what about other countries, wouldn't we have to close ourselves off from them."
Marie shook her head and said "You are thinking too small. This cannot just be an effort by the US, it must be international in scope in order to work, otherwise it will be hacked. There must be a central worldwide standard and organization. The group must be separate from all countries in order to create a core group that everyone can trust. A trusted protocol can't be limited to just people, protocols must be devised for every piece of hardware that could hook to the internet. It doesn't do any good for a person to have a trusted reputation if you use a computer that is stealing the data in order to use it for other purposes."
Les leaned back, eyes open in astonishment. "The US must control it, otherwise another country might gain too much power over us. Then there is the expense, you are talking about a complete redesign of our computing infrastructure. There is no way you could get this project started, let alone fully implemented." Warrick continued to listen, looking thoughtful as he listened to the exchange between Marie and Les.
Marie pointed to her notebooks, while she continued with her lecture. "I know, which is why I shared my paper with others in the forum. I want to find a smaller scale of implementation, because I feel we have to start somewhere. I think the project would build momentum as people saw the advantages of knowing who you can trust on the Internet, but until then, people won't understand.For so many people, unless they see something operating, they don’t understand how it works or could work. By adding people to the implementation, it also allows for testing and protecting the trust against those who will want to game the system.
“ I know that I am not seeing all of the potential bugs, a prototype would need to be built, with enough flexibility to allow changes in the future but not enough flexibility to allow the level of hacking that occurs now." Marie sighed, and shook her head as she spoke. "It's a dream and unlikely to happen but I have to try. We're still trying to clean up from the last propaganda campaign and eventually I see these tools being used for waging war without using soldiers. Think of what could happen if all of the commercial drones were hacked and ordered to fly and crash on one central target. Now picture all of them with some kind of explosive strapped to them. With Trusted Devices, a hacker has to have the right codes, otherwise they aren't trusted enough to deploy them."
Les had finally leaned back and was looking towards the ceiling. He sighed heavily and looked again at Marie. "You bring up some interesting points but your project is too farfetched even for my agency. However, I will write up a report, at least it might start discussions of possible actions," Les said. He looked at his watch and stood up. "Thank you for your time. Warrick, I need to head off for my next appointment, I’ll call for a ride. I suspect you and Marie want to chat.” He walked towards the front door while Marie and Warrick stood up. “I doubt that anything will happen, but who knows? DARPA isn't known for pursuing sensible projects. “
“Thank you for listening to Marie, and perhaps part of her ideas could be implemented,” Warrick said. “In the meantime, our group will continue working on this problem.
"I will be in touch Warrick. Ma'am, thank you for your time." Les nodded his head and opened the door to leave.
“I’ll walk Les out and then I’ll be back,” Warrick said as he walked out with Les. Marie watched them leave, then went over and closed the door while leaving it unlocked. She picked up the tray and water glasses to take them back to the kitchen. As she put the snacks away, she felt like she had wondered into an adventure novel of some type, with someone from the government visiting her. As she was musing about her role, and what actress could play her part, she heard her front door open. Warrick walked in and she said “Over here!” He looked to the side and nodded.
"Come on in and join me while I clean up. Did you know that Mr. Green was going to ask about the Trusted Internet paper?"
Warrick shook his head and said, "No, I knew he was interested in your work, but I thought it was in your public papers about cyber security and current trends. I've only glanced at your research on the forum, it looks interesting, but I agree with him, it would be a big project."
"I know it would and it would require a level of cooperation that we have rarely seen in this world. WWII is one example of the level of cooperation required and look at what it took to get it. However, something has to change. We need a Newton or an Einstein to look at cybersecurity in a new way or we are going to have cyberwars in the future. It's too inexpensive and there aren't enough consequences for nations to stop experimenting in that area." Marie folded her arms across her chest and looked down, mulling over the possible futures. "We need a change, maybe my research can provide the seeds for moving forward."
Warrick looked out the kitchen window, which looked towards downtown Denver and the great plains. "You're right, something needs to change or things are going to get worse." He looked back at Marie and said "I wonder if this is how the first book publishers felt when they saw how their printing was misinterpreted or used for selfish gain. As if the sorcerer’s apprentice was dancing away and would no longer respond to them."
"I suspect some of them did, but in spite of that they continued and books are taken for granted, prized in most cases for how they store our knowledge."
"Warrick smiled and said "I know, this will all be taken for granted someday and our descendants will use it more wisely. In the meantime, it really sucks to live when history is being created."
Marie smiled and then laughed. "I agree. So, are you ready to discuss my research? Let's get started to see what we can do to improve history. Come, let's go to my study, I've got my latest work ready for review."
Marie walked out of the kitchen while Warrick stood up and followed her. As she walked back, she pondered her wild theory and wondered if her idea or something better would ever be implemented.
Pictures by J.T. Harpster