Wednesday, April 02, 2003

War and the internet

This article talks about the problems of troops at war now having e-mail. Essentially there are three

(1) The e-mail is sent over the same unencrypted networks used by everyone else, and it isn't secure. If it contains sensitive information, it may be subject to interception

(2) If soldiers send sensitive information to their friends and families, then the information might get passed on by the families and ultimately work its way back to the enemy. A particular problem occurs when soldiers send photographs that may show identifiable geographical features in the background, so giving away the location of the troops.

(3) Spouses and parents get used to hearing very regularly from Johnny at the front. If they don't hear from him for a day or two, they get terribly worried.

The article concludes by saying

This surely is the first war with a website for each service branch. Surely an outfit capable of such powerful sites can find a way to provide secure email accounts for the men and women who are the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps.

Solving number (1) is trivial. I could have a system providing e-mail that is "secure" by tomorrow afternoon, in the sense of having the mail encrypted, so that people who intercept it would have no chance of being able to read this. The reason this is simple is that this facility is so easy to provide that it is built into at least some commonly available e-mail software. I would have to provide a certificate authority to issue and keep track of valid encryption keys, but this isn't hard. (I have done this before). However, I doubt it would help much, as the real problem is (2). The recipient of the e-mail has to be able to decrypt it, and once they have seen what is in it, they might well show it to someone else.

This, however, is not a new problem. The only solution is to tell soldiers not to put sensitive information in their e-mail in the first place, and to tell recipients to be careful who they show the e-mail to. The internet allows information to be distributed widely and quickly in a way that previous technology didn't, but the simple volume of e-mail being sent also would make it hard for the enemy to figure out what is important and what isn't. Really this is the same problem that has traditionally been dealt with with large posters saying "Careless talk costs lives".

As for (3), I face a similar problem myself. I have spent a good portion of my adult life outside Australia. When this first happened in 1991, I had access to e-mail myself, but my non-technical friends and my family did not. Thus, my parents would often not hear from me for weeks or even months. While I suspect they didn't like this very much, they got used to it. Now, with e-mail, they start to get worried if they haven't heard from me for more than a couple of days. (Actually, I suspect that the presence of this weblog helps somewhat. If I have posted something, my friends and family are at least aware that I have not walked in front of a bus). I wonder if Lt Smash's parents feel the same way. (Obviously, though, I am not fighting in a war, so the degree of worry is different).

Comment: This article was posted with a couple of HTML errors. I was unable to fix them for a time because blogger was down. Sorry.

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