The Public Eye with Eric Chabrow

Should a License be Required to Access the Net?

Should a License be Required to Access the Net?

The chairman of a bipartisan taskforce on cybersecurity of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence raised the question on whether there should be some type of license to be issued to allow access to the Internet.

In an interview with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the nonpartisan public interest group that sponsors the Commission on Cybersecurity for the 44th Presidency, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D.-R.I., said:

"At some point should we begin to license, in some way, access to the web in the same that you license access to the geographical highways? ... You can't drive a car that doesn't have lights on, you can't drive a car with the muffler dragging down the street, you can't drive a car at 110 miles an hour, but you can take a laptop that is just crawling with malware up on to the Internet. ... What are the consequences, what should those consequences be for those kinds of private decisions?"

Whitehouse didn't say in the interview whether he favored any type of legislation requiring the registration of individuals or technology to be used on the Internet. It's hard to imagine how licensing individuals or technology could be enforced. I called Whitehouse's office for clarification, and left a message seeking a response. I'll update this post when I receive one.

I received a response on Wednesday afternoon in an e-mail from Whitehouse communications director Matt Thornton, who wrote that the senator wasn't proposing that either individuals or technology be licensed for Internet use, adding:

"The point the senator was making was more one of comparison to safety. There are basic standards that everyone abides by when they drive on the highways, and one of the things the taskforce is examining is how to encourage responsible Internet use by individual users. The senator does not have specific recommendations in mind at this juncture; he is simply raising one of many complicated questions that need to be examined."

In the interview, Whitehouse touched on the nomination of Army Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander, the NSA director, to also head the newly formed military cyber command. Alexander's nomination to head both organizations is before the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Whitehouse said putting a flag officer in charge of both organizations poses considerable but not necessarily new challenges:

"It is not uncommon, and we certainly seen it in the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, for military authorities and intelligence authorities to be used side by side and in close coordination. So, conceptually, it's not huge. It's just a question of applying it in this new forum, applying it in the new command, and addressing the privacy and civil liberties issues which are so important in this context, which matter less when you got on-the-ground, field operations taking place half a world away. There's an overlay of issues that the excellent cooperation the military and intelligence community in those fields of battles simply has not been raised and caused to be settled yet."

Whitehouse also addressed the balance between giving intelligence agencies including the National Security Agency the tools to diminish cyber threats with the protection of civil liberties and citizens' privacy. He said:

"The fact of the matter is that, from a technological point of view, NSA is the mother ship and we have to make sure that we don't compromise or diminish the technological capabilities and advantages that the expertise of NSA provides for the country, while at the same time making sure that safeguards for privacy and civil liberties are not only adhered to but that there is a mechanism in place for making sure that they are adhered to."

Whitehouse said the intelligence community must use the covert tools at its disposal to safeguard America's digital assets from assault as it would any other kind of attack, adding:

"It's also important that the boundary issues between the intelligence community and other overt organizations be made clear so that you don't end up with the ball dropping between the two fielders - everyone knows where their responsibilities begin and end and what the coordination feature is for that boundary."

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence formed the bipartisan cybersecurity taskforce in December to evaluate cyber threats facing the nation and issue recommendations to the U.S. intelligence community when appropriate. The other members of the taskforce are Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D.-Md., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine.

The taskforce is slated to complete its work in June. Whitehouse said taskforce members have met with the intelligence agency and has already briefed the select committee on their progress. It's the goal of the taskforce not to recommend what the committee should do, he said, but to identify issues it should address.



About the Author

Eric Chabrow

Eric Chabrow

Retired Executive Editor, GovInfoSecurity

Chabrow, who retired at the end of 2017, hosted and produced the semi-weekly podcast ISMG Security Report and oversaw ISMG's GovInfoSecurity and InfoRiskToday. He's a veteran multimedia journalist who has covered information technology, government and business.




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