The arguments for (and against) an Internet kill switch

The "Internet kill-switch" that might have been included in earlier cybersecurity bills (and maybe not) provoked a great deal of argument. The idea that the president might have a means to actually shut down the Internet, or even part of it, during a cyber-emergency evoked a lot of concern.

However, applying the same concept on a departmental level within the federal government could be a good idea, according to some.

Panelists at MeriTalk’s June 26 cybersecurity discussion on Capitol Hill explored the hotly debated issue of an Internet kill switch – a single shutoff mechanism that would halt all online traffic during a cyber emergency.

In the event an agency has a security breach, should the Homeland Security Department be able to cut off its Internet access while the threat is being mitigated? asked an event attendee.

The state of Delaware’s central IT organization already has that capability in place but “the legislative branch is not happy that we have that authority,” said William Hickox, chief operating officer at Delaware Department of Technology and Information.

“It’s a kill switch on a departmental level, and we will use it to protect the department from itself, protect [departments] from each other, or if there’s an issue, we have a kill switch that will take out departments or branches of government,” he said. “The legislative branch is not pleased we maintain that authority, but they have yet to act legislatively to restrict that current authority.”

Gary Gagnon, senior vice president and chief security officer at The MITRE Corporation, expressed unease over a kill switch capability.

“I get real nervous when I hear about a kill switch,” he said. “I don’t think we fully understand the dependency and complexity of the networks we are operating on a daily basis, and to have other organizations saying they sufficiently understand the procedures to deny another organization access . . . could have consequences.”

Existing laws and supporting and policies grant the agency CIO and designated approval authority the power for making decisions including those around a kill switch capability and potential tradeoffs, said John Streufert, director of the National Cyber Security Division at DHS.

“Having been a CISO and managed security in a number of cabinet-level departments, I think leaving that flexibility with cabinet-level CISOs . . . is a very positive thing because they’re closest to the impact and hold the responsibility over data,” he said.


About the Author

Camille Tuutti is a former FCW staff writer who covered federal oversight and the workforce.

Cyber. Covered.

Government Cyber Insider tracks the technologies, policies, threats and emerging solutions that shape the cybersecurity landscape.


Reader comments

Tue, Aug 7, 2012

We need a highly organized and sustainable National Reform Movement. It is time to reform our governance to a comprehensively designed ethical governance system (CEGS) it's our only hope for our future. A CEGS will include the best of current, democratic governance, economic, and social systems, while introducing new ideas to replace the government corruption and oppression of the people. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and clean this mess up. These systems of corruption must be reformed out of existence for the safety of mankind.

Tue, Jul 3, 2012 earth

If anything would cause a run on the banks it would be the exercise of the “internet kill switch. As soon as people realized their credit and debit cards no longer worked they would have to run to the bank to get cash, and lots of it, to pay for gas, food, power etc. Raise your hand if you have an adequate supply of checks on hand and know what value to put in the register. Know any stores that still accept checks?
It would be an interesting thing to know whether the MB money supply was sufficient.
I mention the above not as an exercise in being off topic but to illustrate how interconnected the e-government push will become if successful and how disruptive a kill switch would also eventually become.

There is a government only “internet” AKA “SIPRNET”. But the point of having a FOUO government “internet” is a good one if only for first responders and continuity of operations. Presently such communication happens with VPN and that would be susceptible to disruption of the internet backbone. Theoretically the internet is not susceptible to such disruption given that a packet can find its own route but the bandwidth might only support UDP.

For an example of using a kill switch take a look at

Sun, Jul 1, 2012

When internet was born out of ARPAnet, there should have been a gov-only network established. Critical systems should have never been in public IP universe in the first place.

Fri, Jun 29, 2012 Fed Up Fed

Observation: Managed ports within a company agency are NOT the same thing as an external "kill switch" wielded by a government over (potentially) national access. The former is internal administration. The latter is power mongering.

Fri, Jun 29, 2012 Fed Up Fed

"It’s a kill switch on a departmental level, and we will use it to protect the department from itself, protect [departments] from each other..." ***WTH? It's just manged switches and routers. All it takes is the wherewithall to administratively choose to disable the upstream port. Drama much?***

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