Monthly Archives: March 2021

Infrastructure – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Infrastructure used to be regulated and boring; the phones just worked and water just came out of the tap. Software has changed all that, and the systems our society relies on are ever more complex and contested. We have seen Twitter silencing the US president, Amazon switching off Parler and the police closing down mobile phone networks used by crooks. The EU wants to force chat apps to include porn filters, India wants them to tell the government who messaged whom and when, and the US Department of Justice has launched antitrust cases against Google and Facebook.

Infrastructure – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly analyses the security economics of platforms and services. The existence of platforms such as the Internet and cloud services enabled startups like YouTube and Instagram soar to huge valuations almost overnight, with only a handful of staff. But criminals also build infrastructure, from botnets through malware-as-a-service. There’s also dual-use infrastructure, from Tor to bitcoins, with entangled legitimate and criminal applications. So crime can scale too. And even “respectable” infrastructure has disruptive uses. Social media enabled both Barack Obama and Donald Trump to outflank the political establishment and win power; they have also been used to foment communal violence in Asia. How are we to make sense of all this?

I argue that this is not simply a matter for antitrust lawyers, but that computer scientists also have some insights to offer, and the interaction between technical and social factors is critical. I suggest a number of principles to guide analysis. First, what actors or technical systems have the power to exclude? Such control points tend to be at least partially social, as social structures like networks of friends and followers have more inertia. Even where control points exist, enforcement often fails because defenders are organised in the wrong institutions, or otherwise fail to have the right incentives; many defenders, from payment systems to abuse teams, focus on process rather than outcomes.

There are implications for policy. The agencies often ask for back doors into systems, but these help intelligence more than interdiction. To really push back on crime and abuse, we will need institutional reform of regulators and other defenders. We may also want to complement our current law-enforcement strategy of decapitation – taking down key pieces of criminal infrastructure such as botnets and underground markets – with pressure on maintainability. It may make a real difference if we can push up offenders’ transaction costs, as online criminal enterprises rely more on agility than on on long-lived, critical, redundant platforms.

This was a Dertouzos Distinguished Lecture at MIT in March 2021.