Legislation

SOPA could harm security on the internet

December 16, 2011
As the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee continues its debate of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) for a second day, experts are warning that, if passed, the controversial anti-copyright bill could have unintended consequences for internet security.

The legislation appears to be headed toward approval following a nearly 12-hour hearing Thursday, during which the committee voted to reject a number of amendments meant to address the concerns of technology experts and civil liberties advocates. The measure is intended to fight music and movie piracy by allowing the government to block access to any domestic or foreign website deemed to contain pirated content. Critics argue such a law is akin to censoring the internet.

If passed, SOPA could also hamper efforts to improve security, experts waned. Specifically, it would undermine  DNSSEC, a set of extensions designed to provide authentication of DNS data, Paul Ferguson, senior threat researcher at anti-virus firm Trend Micro, told SCMagazineUS.com on Friday. DNSSEC uses digital, cryptographic signatures to protect against forged DNS data and ensures that the server to which a user believes they are connecting is the correct one. Efforts to implement DNSSEC have been ongoing for more than a decade.

“We are all out here trying to make the internet more secure to do business and surf the web,” Ferguson said. “Without being able to secure the DNS system we still have gaping holes that need to be closed. This is a giant step backward in that regard.”

Stewart Baker, partner in the Washington office of law firm Steptoe & Johnson, told SCMagazineUS.com in an email Friday that under the law, browser makers that build implementations of DNSSEC would actually be risking liability.

“DNSSEC can't be effectively implemented unless browsers try multiple DNS servers when they get blocked or unsatisfactory answers from their primary server,” Baker said. “That could easily defeat SOPA's blocking mechanisms, something SOPA makes illegal.”

Browser makers will likely decide to forgo DNSSEC deployment if the law is passed due to the risk of liability, he said.

Worse, the measure probably would not put a substantial dent in the availability of counterfeited material online, Vint Cerf, a Google executive who is known as one of the fathers of the internet, wrote in a letter Wednesday to the bill's author, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas. DNS filters required to enforce the law can be easily defeated by simply choosing an offshore DNS resolution provider.

“I continue to have concerns regarding the efficacy and wisdom of this legislation,” Cerf wrote.

The law would likely drive users to look for foreign and unregulated DNS servers if the sites they are trying to reach have been blocked by their ISPs, Baker said.

The Judiciary Committee on Friday resumed debate on the bill. If passed, it will move to the House floor.

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