Are Escaped Zoo Animals Autonomous?

Back when David Sanger revealed new details of how StuxNet broke free of Natanz, he used the metaphor of an escaped zoo animal actively unlocking its cage.

In the summer of 2010, shortly after a new variant of the worm had been sent into Natanz, it became clear that the worm, which was never supposed to leave the Natanz machines, had broken free, like a zoo animal that found the keys to the cage. It fell to Mr. Panetta and two other crucial players in Olympic Games — General Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Michael J. Morell, the deputy director of the C.I.A. — to break the news to Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden.

An error in the code, they said, had led it to spread to an engineer’s computer when it was hooked up to the centrifuges. When the engineer left Natanz and connected the computer to the Internet, the American- and Israeli-made bug failed to recognize that its environment had changed. It began replicating itself all around the world. [my emphasis]

This zoo animal found the keys to its cage, broke free, spread to an engineer’s computer, failed to recognize its new environment, and then began replicating itself all around the world.

That is, Sanger used the language of a cognizant being, acting as an agent to spread itself. That’s not inapt. After all, viruses do spread themselves (though they don’t actually go seek out keys to do so).

Which is why this detail, noted in Obama’s other pre-Thanksgiving document dump, is so stunning. (h/t Trevor Timm)

The Defense Department does not require developers of computer systems that launch cyber operations to implement the same safeguards required of traditional arms makers to prevent collateral damage.

[snip]

directive, released Nov. 21, mandated that automated and semi-autonomous weaponry — such as guided munitions that independently select targets — must have human machine interfaces and “be designed to allow commanders and operators to exercise appropriate levels of human judgment over the use of force.” The mandate called for “rigorous hardware and software verification and validation” to ensure that engagements could be terminated if not completed in a designated time frame. The goal is to minimize “unintended engagements,” the document states.

The Pentagon is permitting less human control over systems that deploy malware, exploits and mitigation tools, highlighting Defense’s focus on agile responses to computer threats. The document, signed by Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, explicitly states that the directive “does not apply to autonomous or semi-autonomous cyberspace systems for cyberspace operations.”

We have already lost control of one our semi-autonomous cyberspace operations. The potential danger from its “escape” could be tremendous.

And yet DOD specifically exempts similar operations in the future? So we can commit the same error again?

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15 Responses to Are Escaped Zoo Animals Autonomous?

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Emptywheel Twitterverse
emptywheel Leia: Come here R2, we need you to hack yet another totally insecure Imperial lock.
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emptywheel Does it seem that Twitter and Google are both reporting in at same time on what they've done since big SV meeting? https://t.co/TVMBQc1VWP
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emptywheel @KaryMoss We've met (Marcy Wheeler) at dinners & I think you recognized me last time I saw you. Mary B & I are Wellstone twins.
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JimWhiteGNV You misspelled Bern. https://t.co/dDKwtnk0DE
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emptywheel Maybe we should just preemptively have Marc Edwards test the H2O of every broke city? Flint, Stockton, next? https://t.co/go1dd6S91n
2hreplyretweetfavorite
emptywheel Shorter One Not So Tough Nerd: I'm going to hide behind GOP refusal to call me as witness. https://t.co/2SDVfJr2rJ
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emptywheel @Susan_Hennessey So much of PRG recs (incl that one) focused on bureaucratic inertias, they both have done that @agcrocker @RossSchulman
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emptywheel @Susan_Hennessey Would you consider asking Clarke or Sunstein to also write one, going back to PRG rec? @agcrocker @RossSchulman
2hreplyretweetfavorite
bmaz @joshgerstein Also the motions to quash subpoenas to Rice, Powell and State officials would take a while.
2hreplyretweetfavorite
bmaz @joshgerstein No kidding. Probably never in a criminal court anyway.
3hreplyretweetfavorite
emptywheel @DanaHoule You don't think the paper will make any difference?
3hreplyretweetfavorite
bmaz @joshgerstein I mean, heck, federal courts just don't move that fast. Except on Bush v. Gore.
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